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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.

Winslow 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.

Hel 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) metaphor.

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 same.

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 predilections are 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 (including Hel), 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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