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Onyx reviews: Satori
by Don Winslow
In 1979, Rodney Whitaker (who died in 2005), published Shibumi under
his pen name Trevanian. That book's title refers to the Japanese aesthetic of
simplicity, something to which protagonist Nocholai Hel aspired. Trevanian
revealed hints about
Hel's backstory. Now, crime writer Don Winslow (The
Dawn Patrol, Savages) fills in
some of the missing details in this authorized "prequel" to Shibumi.
Trevanian regarded Shibumi and
his other novels, such as The Eiger Sanction, as
spoofs of the spy genre. After writing them, he declared that he didn't think it
was necessary for him or anyone else to ever write another spy novel.
wisely decided to avoid slavish imitation of Trevanian's style. It's obvious
that he's studied the Trevanian novel from the way he utilizes details from it,
including Hel's "proximity sense," which he acquired in
solitary confinement—the ability to navigate and be aware of people who
approach him in complete darkness. However, it is not necessary to have read Shibumi
to fully appreciate this book.
Winslow, too, treads
the border between spy novel and spoof, using well-worn clichés of the genre as
a kind of shorthand. He keeps the book moving along, with very short chapters—many
less than a page—to keep readers flipping forward. Satori comes
off as a cross between the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming and the Bourne
novels of Robert
Ludlum. Hel is suave, debonair, refined, intelligent, agile and infinitely resourceful. Though
he is American in appearance, his upbringing (he was raised in Shanghai and
lived in Japan) has made him more eastern than western in
thought, attitude and behavior. He plays dangerous
games with his adversaries, often with a smile concealing his dagger. He is a
skilled lover who knows a
hundred different ways to kill a person, most of them using his bare hands.
The story starts in 1951, after 26-year-old Hel is released from
solitary confinement, where he has been held (and tortured) for three years for
murdering his Japanese mentor/father figure, General Kishikawa. To Hel it was an
act of mercy, performed to spare the man the shame of a war crimes trial. Hel's
release isn't unconditional: the US Intelligence Service needs him for a mission that requires someone
with the discipline of an assassin, trained in lethal martial arts, who can
speak Russian and Chinese. In
additional to financial consideration for completing the job, his handler,
Haverford, promises to give him the addresses of those responsible for his torture.
doesn't have many options. After undergoing reconstructive
surgery (to repair the damage inflicted by his torturers while in
prison, but also to make him resemble his new cover identity), he is set up with
a nurse named Solange who will help him recover from his operation and tutor him in the French accent and local geography required so he can pass
himself off as arms dealer Michel Guibert. Solange thinks of herself as a prostitute, but
Hel falls for her during their time together. She will be his reward at the
completion of his mission, assuming he survives. The likelihood of that is low, but it's better
than staying in prison.
The job takes him to Beijing, where he is to
assassinate Soviet commissioner Yuri Voroshenin, the primary liaison
between Moscow and China. This is a sensitive time in global politics. The
Korean War has the east and west at odds. Russia is
threatening to encircle China, removing it from contention as a
global power. Hel likens this to the strategic Japanese game of go, in which
black and white pieces vie for territory on a board and remove opponent's
pieces by surrounding them. As Guibert, Hel maneuvers himself into a position
where he can meet Voroshenin, a man who played a part in Hel's past, he
discovers. This leads to a cat-and-mouse game between the two men as they
consider moves like go players, the book's chief (and somewhat overused)
Once Hel decides on the site and scenario for the assassination, he conveys messages to his
handlers via a series of cold drops and the usual Cold War cloak and dagger
techniques, although at times Winslow ignores the limitations of the
communications systems of the era, presumably for the sake of expediency and to
keep the story moving.
Hel plans to use the cover of a loud passage in an opera to make his
move, a very Hitchcockian scenario. However, he discovers that he has enemies
everywhere: in Russia, in Beijing and inside the USIS itself. He has to make
several impromptu decisions that disrupt his carefully laid-out plan and ends up
running for his life. Because this is a prequel, readers know
that Hel will survive his exploits, which takes a little air out of the book's
balloon of suspense, but his adventures are harrowing and thrilling all the
His cover story as a French arms dealer serves him well as he escapes
into the jungles and untamed rivers of the Mekong region of Vietnam, where he
falls in with several different groups, all at odds with each other. Hel's main motivation is to get out of southeast Asia
so he can find Solange and make a new life with her, perhaps in southern France, where he can melt into the background.
The rocket launchers that were part of his cover
become Hel's negotiating chip. Ultimately he makes it to Saigon, where the book's final acts take place. The
city is vibrant, but the shadow of the impending conflict in
Vietnam hangs heavily over its streets. The book's most entertaining character
is a resourceful dwarf Hel meets, a man whose expletive-laden speech and
guaranteed to delight and amuse.
The book's title is a
Japanese word for a sudden state of awareness of the meaning of everything, a
kind of epiphany or enlightenment. Hel's main problem is that he
can never be sure what anything means. No one is exactly who they pretend to be
and every situation has layer upon layer of subterfuge that cloaks its reality.
Only when confronted with the legendary assassin called the Cobra does Hel
approach something like satori. However, this bombshell revelation happens
without much fanfare. It's as if some part of Hel knew this the truth along.
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