Why Shibumo?

An explainer for where the title of my blog came from.

In 1989 my husband (then boyfriend) gave me one of his favorite novels to read.  It was Shibumi by Trevanian.  My husband plays go, an ancient Asian board game with deceptively simple rules.  The board is a grid and the players place either white or black stones on the board, with the objective of surrounding and taking territory.  One reason the book appealed to him was that the main character, Nicholai Hel, was a student of go, in addition to being a master assassin.  Go plays an integral part in bringing the characters together and also forms a backbone of the novel itself, as the names of chapters are terms and gambits used in Go.

There is much more to the book than just go, of course.  Zionists seeking revenge for Munich, mystical transport, secret U.S. government agencies, White Russians (not the drink), Zen gardens, spelunking, Basques, the American occupation of Japan following WWII, and concubines.  It is a fine read, though occasionally the author’s views on breeding, Eastern superiority, and smelly Americans (ironically he was born in America, but lived in Europe for years) make for the occasional mental eye roll.

I have always had an interest in Asian art and culture.  I studied Chinese brush painting for years, and Asian cultural ideals of harmony and balance are found not just in this art from but in many cultural expressions (kimono, tea ceremonies, bonsai, calligraphy, cherry blossom viewing).  I found the book appealing as it has a very Japanese sensibility and uses tenets of Japanese cultural thought as a basis for its world view.  The characters are also unique while feeling quite real.  You don’t want to get on Nicolai Hel’s bad side, and you would love to have a bottle of wine with the Basque or afternoon tea with Hana.

For more on Trevanian, click on his page under Favorite Authors and Their Words, which you can find by scrolling down on the right hand side of my blog.  I’ve included a passage from the book with a description of what the Japanese concept of “shibumi” is.

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