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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Satori, by Don Winslow, based on characters by Trevanian (hardcover, $24.99)

Trevanian's enigmatic and compelling book, Shibumi (the state of effortless perfection), came out in 1979. His protagonist, Nicholai Hel, was a Caucasian man with an Asian turn of mind. Because of family circumstances, Nicholai was raised by a Japanese military man, General Kishikawa. Kishikawa taught young Nicholai to play the game of Go. In fact, he taught Nicholai that life and the problems it brings could be viewed as a giant Go game. Combining Go-strategy, his martial arts skills and discipline, a knowledge of many languages, and a superior intellect, Nicholai was a force to be reckoned with. He was also an assassin.

Almost thirty years later, along comes respected thriller novelist Don Winslow to give us the prequel to Shibumi. Satori is a higher level of awareness, a moment of perfect clarity, and the book Satori defines the moment when young Nicholai Hel finds his true place in the world.

In 1951 Japan, Nicholai Hel has just been released from prison. Put there and tortured by Americans, Hel is not inclined to be sympathetic to any proposal they may have for him. Because Hel has such an extraordinary combination of talents, the CIA would like him to assassinate a high-level Soviet spy in China. His reward will be freedom. The 26-year-old Hel takes up the offer. It is especially sweet when Hel realizes the target is Voroshinen, the man who cast aside Hel's mother and stole his family's fortune. A few characters are introduced in Satori who eventually show up in Shibumi, so it is well worthwhile to track down a copy of Shibumi and read that next.

I must say that Shibumi was definitely Trevanian's book, as Satori is definitely Winslow's. Winslow is well regarded for the hard-edged thrillers he writes, mostly about drug trafficking and corruption in Southern California and Mexico. However, before those thrillers, he wrote one of my favorite series with a sweet and smart hero, Neal Carey. In my opinion, written with Winslow's pen, young Nicholai Hel owes some of his personality to young Neal Carey. There is a sweetness and a hopefulness to Hel that not even assassination assignments and torture can allay. Winslow depicts Hel's Buddhist philosophy fairly well, but Trevanian's portrayal reached more mystical and esoteric levels. Anyhow, I enjoyed this follow-up, and anything that brings attention to a masterpiece like Shibumi has my vote.

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