Wednesday, June 05, 2024

the last book I read

Shibumi by Trevanian.

Dangerous places, airports. Not only have you got to grapple with the unpalatable prospect of being strapped into a claustrophobic metal tube with 200+ sweaty malodorous strangers for many hours, with the low but nonetheless very real possibility of it all ending in screaming fiery death, but it's possible that you may stray into a check-in queue next to someone who someone else wants to make sure never gets on the plane in the first place, and get rubbed out in a hail of bullets instead.

When this happens at the airport in Rome to a group of passengers about to board a flight to Tel Aviv, it sets a whole series of balls rolling. Firstly, the CIA, who organised the whole thing as an operation designed to take out some Israelis who were on their way to do a bit of the old murdering of their own, of some Palestinians involved in the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, conduct a lengthy investigation. The reasons why the CIA would want to intervene in such an activity are obscure and tortuous but basically involve oil and America's access to it; the reasons they do the in-depth post mortem is that there was a bit more of the old mortem than they'd envisaged, several random civilians regrettably having been ventilated as well. The other problem is that despite all the hot lead flying around the assassins only managed to take out two of the three suspects; the third, Hannah Stern, managed to escape.

Hannah is strictly an amateur at this sort of thing but has the address of a man who is very much a professional: Nicholai Hel, the world's greatest and deadliest assassin, a man who can kill you in a dozen different ways with a dozen different seemingly innocuous household items - a playing card, a paper clip, a fried egg, you name it. He is, if you will, a Hel of a guy. Hel also just happens to have been a friend of Hannah's uncle, Asa Stern, and she hopes that she can use this as leverage to persuade him to intervene to help her. The trouble is, Hel is basically retired these days, having made enough money killing the president of Paraguay with a fork to be able to afford a few nice houses, including the mansion in the French Basque country where he passes most of his time with his exotic Oriental girlfriend, Hana, occupying himself tending his garden, perfecting his go technique, exploring the extensive local cave systems and having eye-wateringly athletic tantric sex. 

But how, you may or may not be asking at this point, did Nicholai Hel become the man he is today? Anyone not asking that question, and perhaps just wanting the plot to crack on in an orthodox thriller-y fashion, is going to be a bit frustrated for the next couple of hundred pages, as we now get an in-depth back-story describing Hel's early years. And they are interesting and unusual: offspring of a Russian mother and Prussian father, both vaguely aristocratic, early years spent in Shanghai, fluent in Chinese, English, Russian, French, taken into the care of a Japanese general after the fall of Shangai and raised for the next few years in Japan (thereby adding Japanese to the language list), where he learned the rudiments of go and eventually became a master player.

After the Second World War Hel makes his killing debut in slightly odd circumstances: learning of his old mentor General Kishikawa's imprisonment he visits him and agrees to preserve the old man's honour and fulfil his debt to him by giving him the old judo chop instant death treatment under the noses of his captors. During his subsequent imprisonment he hones his physical fitness and unarmed combat skills and keeps his language skills sharp by talking to himself in multiple languages and learning Basque from some books that happen to be lying around. Eventually the CIA take an interest in Hel's unique abilities, suggest a deal whereby he does a bit of killing for them in exchange for his freedom, and his career is off and running.

Back to the present day, then, and once Hel has emerged from the complex bit of cave exploration he and his caving companion, bluff beardy Basque poet Le Cagot, have been busy with he hears what Hannah has come to say, and soon realises that there is really no decision to make, as the trail that Hannah will have left will be enough for the CIA, or rather the mysterious organisation called the Mother Company that oversees their activities, to pinpoint her destination and identify him.

Sure enough Hel's local Basque informer network soon lights up with news of strangers in the village. Rather than get into a lengthy game of cat-and-mouse, Hel siezes the initiative by inviting them to dinner and seeing what they want, which basically boils down to: leave the Palestinians alone to do their thing, whatever it is, and your various retirement assets will be left alone, bar a small token punishment for inconveniencing the Mother Company. Also, nice house and girlfriend you have here, shame if they were to, you know, CATCH FIRE or something. 

Dinner is over, the goons leave, and Hel is considering accepting these terms, but then the Americans, in a bid to exert further persuasion, clumsily murder Hannah Stern, and Hel decides that the only way to proceed with honour is to get freakin' MEDIAEVAL ON THEIR ASS. So with the help of his old friend The Gnome, acquirer of spicy blackmail material and other negotiable items, Hel heads for London, cooks up an arrangement with the British Secret Service, and finishes the job that Hannah wanted him to do by rubbing out the Palestinians. 

But the Americans are bound to find out, and Hannah's death suggests that there's a rat in Hel's local informer network. And sure enough while Hel and Le Cagot are up in the mountains exploring a new cave, they return, cut Le Cagot's rope so he falls to his death, and roll some big rocks over the entrance to entomb Hel for ever.

Fortunately, during their previous explorations of the cave Hel and Le Cagot found what appeared to be a possible exit, via a sump occupied by a fast-flowing river. It's unclear whether a human could survive going through it without getting drowned and/or bashed to bits, but hey, whaddaya gonna do? It turns out that, as long as you're fairly slim and bendy, you can get through while only getting mostly drowned and bashed to bits, and Hel escapes, only to find that the Americans have also bombed his home, badly injured Hana, and, most unforgivably of all, mussed up the carefully-combed gravel in his Oriental garden.

So now comes the time for the this-time-it's-personal acts of revenge. Armed with The Gnome's choicest morsels (some papers relating to the Kennedy assassination) Hel confronts the Mother Company and persuades them to hand over the individuals responsible so that he can deal with them personally. This done, he retreats to the still-standing bits of his Basque mansion with Hana to consider his future. The leverage he currently has won't hold forever, and eventually they will come for him again, with more mess and danger and killing and the like. If the overall game cannot be won, how should one exit from the endgame with honour and dignity, at a time and in a manner of your choosing?

Trevanian (spoiler alert: not his real name) is best known for his 1972 debut novel The Eiger Sanction, made into a fairly so-so Clint Eastwood film in 1975. Interestingly it too revolves around a professional assassin persuaded reluctantly out of retirement for One Last Job - the other crucial thing about the book (bulldozed somewhat for the film version) is that it was meant as a spoof of the James Bond-style action hero thriller genre. The best way to look at Shibumi is as a similar sort of thing, maybe not a spoof exactly, but an exercise in knowingly testing what the boundaries of the genre will stand. Well, that's all very cute, you might say, but it's really a way of having your cake and eating it, isn't it - writing what basically amounts to a thriller, albeit an unusual one, and then loftily proclaiming your disdain for the whole genre while watching the dollars roll in from the paperback sales. 

Perhaps it's best just to enjoy the book on what appear to be its own terms, an exciting, highly idiosyncratic adventure story with an intriguing protagonist whose back-story is given an unusual amount of attention and depth. Some of this is just an excuse for Trevanian to indulge in writing at some length about subjects that clearly interest him: go and Japanese culture, the Basque region and its people and language, caving and rock-climbing.

The parts of the novel concerned with the fall of Shanghai and the subsequent Japanese occupation are highly reminiscent of Empire Of The Sun, while the two lengthy episodes inside the cave system are reminiscent of the thrilling escape sequence in Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, though shorn of all the supernatural elements, and also Richard Church's classic children's book The Cave, which I see I mentioned here

Anyway, if you like a thrilling adventure story, but are a bit jaded with the standard stuff, and want something a bit more quirky and aware of its own inherent absurdity, then this will probably do you quite nicely. 

No comments: