Friday, April 01, 2011

A Very Odd Couple

Why would one of the best crime-fiction writers in the world decide to take on the composition of what the finished book’s cover describes as “a novel based on” the work of another author?

That’s what I wondered when I first heard that Don Winslow, the author of such classics as The Death and Life of Bobby Z, The Winter of Frankie Machine, The Power of the Dog, and The Dawn Patrol, had signed to write a prequel to Shibumi, a 1979 thriller by the novelist known as Trevanian, whose most famous book was The Eiger Sanction (1972). Money probably had something to do with it, but Winslow has sold many books. And, to my knowledge, he is the only writer to make the work of an insurance investigator--in California Fire and Life--not only interesting, but fascinating.

Now comes the result of this unlikely collaboration: Satori (Grand Central Publishing). The title itself is a tribute to its source. “The tea room was exquisite, elegant in its simplicity. a perfect expression of shibumi ...,” explains the lead character, Nicholai Hel. “In his role as guest, Nicholai admired the skillful brushwork. which depicted the Japanese symbol for satori. An interesting choice, Nicholai thought. Satori was the Zen Buddhist concept of a sudden awakening, a realization of life as it really is. ... Nicholai had never known satori.”

The more pages I turned, the more I understood why Winslow had taken on this project. He is very kind to Trevanian family members, and makes me believe that he really admires the author. Although I would argue that Winslow has known satori in virtually all of his books, the challenge here must have been irresistible. And he pulls it off with so much energy and imagination that Satori turns out to be a total triumph.

After the young half-Japanese, half-Russian Hel is suddenly released from an American-run prison in 1951 Japan, he quickly learns from his former captors what they have in mind for him. That gang of “spooks”--mostly new renderings of, and much more frightening than, the ones in Shibumi--make Hel an offer he knows he should refuse: they want him to go through painful plastic surgery on his face and carry out a probably suicidal mission to assassinate a Soviet commissioner in China. But he also knows that Solange, the older French woman who is looking after him and teaching him to talk, eat, drink, smoke, and smell like a real Frenchman, will be in grave danger if he refuses. He has come to love this stunning woman with a tragic back-story of her own.

So, having adopted the identity, visage, and aroma of a 26-year-old French arms dealer, Hel enters a very dangerous and beautifully drawn world, which eventually takes him to war-ravaged Vietnam, where his expertise in playing the ancient game of Go (I bought a set after reading about it here) becomes as important as his physical skills.

On the way, Winslow paints a bleak but touching picture of China two years after Mao Zedong seized power--including a 1952 visit to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Satori is proof that a fine writer can take on any challenge, and make it work for him.

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