Hardback: 448 pages
Publication Date: 28/04/2011
Fuelled by my voracious reading of James Clavell novels and the films that my Japanophile friend used to lend when we were teenagers, I have been fascinated by Oriental culture – and in particular, Japan – for a number of years. So to say that my interest was piqued when I received a copy of Don Winslow’s new novel, Satori, is an understatement. A critically acclaimed American crime author, Winslow has written Satori as a prequel to Trevanian’s Shibumi, a multi-million selling thriller first published in 1979 [I say ‘first published’ because it will be republished in the UK in May of this year]. The result of this union is an absolutely stunning novel that had me gripped from the first page to the last.
From post-war Tokyo to Maoist China, and finally French-ruled Saigon, Satori follows assassin Nicholai Hel’s quest to achieve revenge and redemption. Captured, imprisoned and tortured for three years by the Americans after he killed his Japanese mentor, Hel is offered a chance to gain his freedom. But in exchange he must work as an assassin for the Americans.
Overseen by his spymaster, Haverford, and trained by the beautiful – and deadly – French courtesan, Solange, Hel must journey to Beijing to assassinate the Soviet Union’s Commissioner to China. It appears to be a suicide mission, but if anyone has a chance of succeeding and surviving then it is Hel, an expert martial artist and a master of the hoda korosu, or ‘naked kill’ [which is something that Trevanian made up – I tried, and failed, to Google it!].
Hel is, without doubt, the jewel in Satori ’s crown. You could replace him with an anodyne and cipherous protagonist, and the novel would still be a very good thriller. But the presence of Hel adds another dimension to Satori and really elevates it to another level as a novel.
Part James Bond [Hel is both incredibly attractive and rather partial to gambling], part Bruce Lee and part proto-Jason Bourne [he uses a magazine to kill a group of assailants], Hel is a brilliant action hero – ably handling himself in a number of edge-of-your-seat fight sequences. But what really sets him apart is his depth of character and emotional complexity – making him a lot more than just an efficient weapon.
His heritage – a Russian mother and a German father – and Western appearance means that he is a perpetual outsider in the East, where he grew up. And the fact that he was raised in China and Japan, means that Westerners also view him as an alien. It leaves him in a state of limbo, alone, a wandering killer … a rōnin [especially as he killed his mentor], adrift and without roots to anchor him. But in his love for Solange he finds the possibility of finally making a life and finding a home.
And it is this depth and complexity of characterization which gives Satori the emotional quality that makes it so special, and made me invest in the story and really care what happened [which is a rare thing indeed in a thriller]. And this emotional involvement reached it zenith with the two major ‘twists’ of the novel. I could tell quite early in my reading that both were going to happen but, rather than spoiling the story, it actually added to my reading experience. Because I spent the rest of the book hoping against hope that I was wrong, as I really didn’t want either of them to occur [sorry for being deliberately obtuse, I don’t want to spoil it for anyone!].
The thriller genre is somewhat of a departure from the type of crime fiction that Winslow usually writes, but it doesn’t show. The novel has a great pace about it [some of the chapters are only a few lines long] and a brilliant sense of the period, place and culture of the time. You can certainly tell that Winslow is a fan of Shibumi and he has made sure that he has stayed true to Trevanian’s creation without making the mistake of trying to mimic the style of the original too closely.
There is also definitely more than a hint of Casino Royale [the recent film more than the book] about some of the proceedings in Satori. Like Bond in Casino Royale, Hel starts out as a callow and fairly inexperienced killer who we see evolving in front of our eyes into the man he will become. And there is even a high-stakes poker game in Saigon [although, I have to admit that it was a far shorter and tenser than the one in Casino Royale !].
With its explosive action, pacy narrative and layers of treachery – someone is always plotting, double-crossing or triple-crossing! – Satori was a rich and rewarding novel that I devoured in one sitting. I can safely say that this will be one of the best books that I will read this year, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
And so intrigued was I by the incredibly tactical game of Go – which Hel is a master of, and which forms an important part of the novel’s structure – that I have tried to read up on it. Unfortunately, due to the fact that I find Monopoly too complex, I think that a game known for its use of complex strategy and six-hour-long games may be a bit beyond me!