• Shibumi

  • By: Trevanian
  • Narrated by: Joe Barrett
  • Length: 16 hrs and 44 mins
  • 4.3 out of 5 stars (2,087 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Nicholai Hel, born in the ravages of World War I China to an aristocratic Russian mother and a mysterious German father, raised in the spiritual gardens of a Japanese Go Master, survives the destruction of Hiroshima to emerge as the world's most artful lover and its most accomplished and highly paid assassin. Genius, mystic, master of language and culture, Hel's secret is his determination to attain a rare kind of personal excellence, a state of effortless perfection: shibumi.

Now living in an isolated mountain fortress with his magnificent Eurasian mistress, Hel faces his most sinister enemy, a super-monolith of espionage and monopoly. The battle lines are drawn: ruthless power and corruption on one side and on the other, shibumi.

©1979 Trevanian (P)2005 Blackstone Audiobooks

Critic Reviews

  • 2005 Audie Award Nominee, Solo Narration (Male)

"It's hard to imagine a more nearly perfect spy story." (Milwaukee Journal)
"Novels about international intrigue demand intricate plotting. Shibumi delivers." (Los Angeles Times)

What listeners say about Shibumi

Average Customer Ratings
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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Only a Russian could be this shibumi

This book is for people who like James Bond, Jason Bourne, and all those other super-ninja Gary Stu action heroes fueled by atomic testosterone. Except if you pay attention, Trevanian is laughing at you. Shibumi shamelessly exploits every single cliche in the genre and then sneers at them. Trevanian's mockery of American culture is acidly funny and not particularly affectionate. Sometimes the self-aware satire and the angry derision seem to blend together.

“It was not their irritating assumption of equality that annoyed Nicholai so much as their cultural confusions. The Americans seemed to confuse standard of living with quality of life, equal opportunity with institutionalized mediocrity, bravery with courage, machismo with manhood, liberty with freedom, wordiness with articulation, fun with pleasure - in short, all of the misconceptions common to those who assume that justice implies equality for all, rather than equality for equals.”

So what to make of a book where the main character is named Nicholai Hel? His mother was a Russian aristocrat, he was born in Shanghai, he was raised by a Japanese go master, and in the aftermath of World War II, he becomes the most ninjaest ninja ever. He learns Basque while spending three years in solitary confinement and so he moves to Spain to hang out in Basque country with his Afro-Euroasian concubine who is lovingly described as a collection of all the best body parts from the sum total of her ethnicities.

The plot is your basic revenge thriller: Hel's ties of duty and obligation bring him into conflict with the Mother Company, which is the umbrella organization representing all the world's energy interests and pretty much controls the Western world. In between snappy dialog in which Hel shows off how he is just so refined and Shibumi and shizzle with derision leveled at every Western country (the Brits, the French, the Italians, and the Germans all get it in the neck at some point, but no one more than Americans), there are action scenes where Hel proves he can do everything from cave diving to killing people with playing cards, equally over-the-top sex scenes 'cause of course learning to kill and play go also makes Hel totally awesome at the sexing.

What elevated this book above the schlock it is pretending to be is the vicious satire and the clever writing. Trevanian could write some sophisticated literary pulp fiction. He was having fun while poking his readers in the eye. He plays it straight all the way through: Shibumi reads like you are supposed to take it seriously, but you can kind of hear his snicker echoing in the main character's dialog. I suspect the racism and sexism was part of the performance. This is a Men's Adventure novel for the cynical hipsters of the 70s, back before appropriating Japanese culture was what all the cool kids did and the idea of structuring a killer thriller around the Oriental game of go (yeah, Shibumi uses words like "Oriental" unironically, and also refers to Arabs as "goat-herds" and portrays all the Arab characters as cowardly gay terrorists) made all the literati who wanted to read something a little more masculine than J.R.R. Tolkien groove on Trevanian's way cool, like, deeep understanding of Oriental culture, man.

Sorry, I can't mock Trevanian nearly as wittily as he mocks me.

This was a fun novel, entertaining on multiple levels. It really does have the tone of a literary author slumming in a chanbara cinema.

65 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

It Doesn't Get Any Better Than This

This is, in my humble opinion, one of the all-time great thrillers, and it stands the test of time exceptionally well. It's rare to find action and thrills and blood and guts mixed so seamlessly with thought-provoking ideas and philosophy, and even more unusual for the ideas in the book to be almost as compelling and fast-reading as the thrills . . . but Shibumi delivers both without ever slowing down the pace or losing momentum. I always hoped Trevanian would investigate these characters and ideas further in other novels, but I've had to satisfy myself by reading Shibumi over and over again in book and audiobook format instead (BTW, thank you Audible for finally carrying this title!). If you like thrillers with just a little more meat on their bones (or characters with a little more character than the typical comic book hero), you're not likely to find a more enjoyable page-turner than Shibumi. They just don't make assassins -- or thrillers -- like this any more.

54 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    1 out of 5 stars

Are previous reviewers relatives of the author?

This is my first review, as generally I agree with previous reviews and it makes little sense to write a "me too" review. However, I found the reviews already provided to be so far away from my experience as to wonder if I'm listening to the same book. I was first caught by the simple example of the author writing, "clattered silently." While this is nit-picky, it illustrates how poorly assembled this book seems to be. Characters are cliches, long tangential passages detract from the story, and the accents used by the narrator are childish and stereotypical (the "Arab" sounds more Japanese and sometimes French). Skip this one.

29 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

One of the Greatest.... EVER!

If you are a fan of the "Tales of the Otori" trilogy I would highly recommend this book. I loved the Otori books, and found this work to be in the same kind of genre. The difference being that this story takes place sometime around when it was written: 1979. To tell you truth, I actually enjoyed this book more than any other listen to date.

One of the reasons I liked it so much was because about half way through the book a character is introduced who will make you wet your pants from laughing so hard. In spite of that the book keeps it's seriousness/suspense till the end.

If you are interested in Japan, martial arts, stories about assassins, and/or espionage themes, then do yourself a favor and drop your credits on this masterpiece.

28 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

IN AUDIO AT LAST!!!

It has to be 20+ years since I've read this book. I've been waiting that long to see it in audio format, and I'm happy I went through the long list of new releases and found this title.

This book rocks with action and suspense, far more than Eiger Sanction or Loo Sanction, which I had read first and loved; reading them each more than once. But SHIBUMI blew me away enough to make the other 2 books almost forgotten.

While in one sense it's a little dated, and maybe the philosophy is strained, the book is so good it's not at all hard to suspend reality and really get, well, emotionally involved in this thriller.

And to AUDIBLE: thanks for adding it to your library! And please add the Sanction books and all the other(s) in the Trevanian bibliography!! Unabridged, naturally!

25 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars

Disappointing

How did anyone ever believe this novel was written by Robert Ludlum under a pen name? The plot plodded. The funny parts weren't. I had a very hard time paying attention and suspending disbelief. And the stuff about the protagonist being some sort of "level four" sex magician was absurd and annoying.

Do yourself a favor - pass on this in favor of one of Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels, one of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, one of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's novels featuring Agent Pendergast, or anything written by Barry Eisler, James Lee Burke, or Nelson DeMille (if Audible ever gets those back in the collection!).

16 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Not an expert, I liked it...

Hello, I was surprised that Marius was so critical of a book I enjoyed tohoughly. An engineer, not qualified to discuss Proust, I like novels featuring Japanese philosophy couched in 'action' format. So, now an admitted philistine, I also disclose that my Audible libray includes over 500 titles; I recommend this book to those who enjoyed Across the Nightingale Floor...

15 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars

Don't believe the hype

I would have given 2.5 stars. Decent but generic narrative. Perhaps back in the day this was a fast paced action thriller. To me it was dull, trite and overwritten.



I am not sure why people give this book 5 stars (cult followers of Trevanian?). I understand why there are those who give it 1 star (pissed that what is touted is a remarkable book could be so boring).




I would advise you to look elsewhere if you are looking for an entertaining, compelling action novel.

12 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    1 out of 5 stars

Vapid

I must really be missing something. A quick internet search locates many favourable reviews of both this book, and of its author, Rodney William Whitaker (aka Trevanian), who apparently positioned himself as someone who read Proust, but not much else written in the 20th century. Consider this statement from Wikipedia: Shibumi is elaborately written, using a very extended vocabulary, based on a sound knowledge in history and geopolitics, switching easily from pessimism to wry humor, Shibumi is more than a mere thriller, and may be compared to other works such as Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-four and Fahrenheit. And there is much of the same in other internet reviews. However, I have seldom read or listened to a more inept, poorly-written thriller, and the comparison to the three great works referred to is ludicrous. The characters in Shibumi are absurd stereotypes, the writing-style is awkward (clearly if the author indeed read Proust extensively, he absorbed little), and the plot-line is as weak as cheap coffee. While Joe Barrett does an excellent job as a narrator, he is in no position to rescue this book.

11 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars

New Age Yogurt Eating Assassin

Hel is one hel of a guy. NOT!
I sent Vince Flynn a memo and asked him to have Mitch Rapp pay this guy hel a visit.
If you think all governments are evil especially the American Government, then read this book.
If you think Americans are nothing but "Marketers" then read this book.
If you think CIA Agents and Corporate Executive Officers have the vocabulary of ignorant hillbillies then read this book.

I personally wished I hadn’t wasted my time and money.
I should have known better than to have purchased a book by an Author on only one Name. I’ll bet he lives in Northern California and his real name is Bertrand Polaski

10 people found this helpful

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  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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  • ThePuss
  • 08-23-10

Unusual and interesting

This is said to be regarded as Trevanian's most critically acclaimed work, and while I enjoyed the book for its breadth of plot (it covers the main character's life from more or less birth through retirement), and the deepness of the main character, I found it dragged a bit in places.
Having said that, I stuck with it, and it was an enjoyable listen. I don't know a great deal about the author, but his descriptions of pot-holing (like those of climbing in 'Eiger' and 'Loo') are excellent, but if they were in a film, they would be the point at which I chose to go to the toilet!
It seems that a good deal of research went into this epic novel, and it does show.
The reader does a fairly good job covering all the characters and accents, although there is still the under-twang of an American accent, I didn't find it to be disconcerting.
Unlike the 'Eiger Sanction', I don't think this would translate well to film, so if you are interested in this, you're going to have to read it or listen to it!

5 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Neil
  • 11-10-19

Shibumi

Extraordinary book. I had missed a lot of detail when I read it 30 years ago. The narration was superb and i felt the story was much more complete through it being read to me.

1 person found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Leecifer
  • 02-19-19

Good listen

Good book, good listen. Ran well. Have already read the book but was worth hearing again.

1 person found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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  • C. M. E. Beckingham
  • 08-23-13

'Spy Spoof'

A specialist genre -'spy spoof' but worth the occasional visit especially for this book. Not quite a 5* but a good 4. Almost took it seriously at times until a sudden ludicrous jolt reminded me it was a send up. Very clever book and amusing in a non-LOL kind of way.

1 person found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • adamp
  • 07-15-22

Fabulous story

This might be the most enjoyable story that I have heard on Audible. Some may find the detail and extensive vocabulary not to their taste but for me it as captivating from beginning to end.

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Anonymous User
  • 09-04-20

read this as a child

read this as a child , I found this reading just as memorable...i will recomend this to friends and family

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    3 out of 5 stars
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  • Mick
  • 12-25-21

Great book ruined by poor narration

I read Shibumi 20 years ago and was looking forward to re-visiting the story on audiobook. I have done this with other books and generally find the experienced enhanced by another person reading.
In this case, the opposite is true. Shibumi is staunchly anti-American in it's sentiment, so whoever chose Joe Barrett to read it had either a mean streak or a sick sense of humour. His inability to pronounce simple words like "mauve" adds to the overall fingers down the blackboard experience. At one stage early in the book, he attempts an Australian accent, which he clearly learned from Monty Python.
A seminal novel like Shibumi deserved better.

1 person found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Michael
  • 03-20-22

best Audiobook I have ever listened to

The US fascination with Japanese culture in the 70s crossed with the conflicts between state and commerce, crossed with the sensibilities of multiple cultures, with a spy novel interwoven. I cannot recall a better book

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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  • Anonymous User
  • 12-17-21

A man's dream

The story is great, there's a few twists and turns. Very clearly written by a man but if you can get past the belittlement of females, then this is a fantastic story

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
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  • Sibleech
  • 04-21-20

Spoof spy adventure

Much has been written about this captivating story but the author is obviously having a lend of his readers. Ridiculous plot and absurd extremism by a master storyteller. One who doesn't try very hard to hide his own pretensions and loathing of the society that made him a wealthy recluse. Fun read but just a tad over the top to deserve its reputation as a classic.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • David W McLeod
  • 11-08-18

Delivers as promised

Every bit as good as the most favourable reviews here that prompted me to select this title.
Fantastic story development, wry humour, and socially relevant commentary 30 years on.
This is a classic that slipped under my radar, that I am so glad to have discovered.

Worth a listen and a read.