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The Book Frog

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Satori - Don Winslow In 1979 the then-mysterious Trevanian published Shibumi, which introduced the character of Nicholai Hel--assassin, Go master, world class lover, spelunker. Shibumi focuses on an incident that pulls Hel out of retirement for one last job and also tells the story of his unusual upbringing, but glosses over the years between. In 2007 Don Winslow, one of the most exciting and original voices in thrillers today, was approached by Hachette Books to take up the mantle of Trevanian and write the story of the beginning of Nicholai Hel's career, the portion of his life merely hinted at in the original book. The result is Satori. Satori begins as Hel is released from the Japanese prison in which he's been held for three years by the Americans in solitary confinement. Hel, son of a German nobleman and a White Russian baroness in exile, is basically a man without a country. Although he had worked for the American government in the period immediately following the Second World War, he was later imprisoned by the Americans for killing--out of filial duty--his Japanese foster father, General Kishikawa, who was a prisoner of war. Hel was not imprisoned for the murder qua murder as much as for depriving the Americans of a vital--if still only theoretically potential--source of information. Hel is not being released because of his exemplary behavior as a prisoner (although, Hel, being Hel, has done nothing but put his time to good use, reading, meditating, exercising, teaching himself the Basque language, perfecting his mastery of Naked/Kill techniques) but rather, because he can be of use to U.S. covert operations. They want to rebuild his face (horribly disfigured by a brutal beating received at the hands of frustrated American interrogators), give him a new identity, then send him out to assassinate the Soviet commissioner to Red China, Yuri Voroshenin. Cue the ominous music: Hel has a past connection to Voroshenin and long ago vowed revenge. He agrees to take the job, with the proviso that, in addition to the passport and monetary payment he's being offered, he also be provided with the names and addresses of the men who beat him so brutally at the beginning of his confinement. The ensuing novel is as richly textured and erudite as its source. Winslow's mastery of the material--the philosophy and strategy of Go, international politics of the Cold War, and Japanese culture, to but skim the surface--is brilliant, and his depiction of the formative years of Nicholai Hel's professional life fits neatly into the mythology created for Hel by Trevanian. If Winslow's Hel is rather humorless as compared to Trevanian's, that can be attributed to his youth and callowness; the sort of humor exhibited by the mature Hel can only be gained with life experience. Satori stands on its own merits, and can be read by a reader utterly unfamiliar with Shibumi (this reader, in fact, read the Winslow first). It gains so much more, however, when read in conjunction with Trevanian's great novel. And--dare I say?--Trevanian gains as well.