Don Winslow's SATORI has been described in a number of corners (including one occupied by the author himself) as a prequel to SHIBUMI, the much beloved espionage novel by Trevanian. Following its publication in 1979, many readers clamored for a sequel from Rodney Whitaker, the man behind the Trevanian pen name. None was forthcoming, and Whitaker's passing in 2005 appeared to close the door on any such possibility.
SATORI is far from a sequel, and I wouldn't call it a "prequel" either. It would fit nicely within the boundaries of SHIBUMI as a flashback, given that it focuses on some of the hidden years of Nicholai Hel, the mystic and assassin who has captivated audiences for three decades. SATORI deals with the period of Hel's life from his imprisonment for the murder and liberation of his mentor to his initial revenge through his escape from Southeast Asia in the early 1950s.
Winslow accomplishes an impressive task, taking a work that is much beloved and heavily studied, and constructing an addition to it. He does so in his own style but stays strongly and deliberately true to the characters, settings and situations that have gone before. While both novels are properly considered to be espionage thrillers, the subtext of both is revenge, pure and simple.
SATORI opens in post-World War II Tokyo, with Hel newly liberated from three years of solitary confinement and torture at the hands of the United States. His freedom is offered with a quid pro quo. Hel is the master of a form of combat known as the "naked kill," and his mission, should he decide to accept it, is to travel to Beijing in the guise of Michel Guibert, the playboy son of a French arms dealer who is trying to prove himself as a serious adult. Once there, Hel is to insinuate himself into the company of a highly placed Russian Communist aiding the Chinese and assassinate him without the act being traced back to the United States. In return, Hel will receive his freedom and the names and addresses of Major Diamond, the man who ordered his torture, as well as those who assisted Diamond in carrying it out.
Hel discovers, though, that the world of politics and espionage is much smaller than he might have imagined, when he learns the identity of his Russian target, the man who humiliated his mother and robbed him of his inheritance. In preparing for his undercover role, he is schooled by Solange, an exquisite beauty who he ends up wanting yet cannot have. Once his schooling ends, Hel is dropped into a world of treachery and double-dealing that he can only navigate by relying upon his own mystic background. He turns increasingly to the classic game of Go, which is about strategy more than anything else. It contains in its playing the truths that are his only constant, even as betrayals --- expected and otherwise --- confront him at every turn.
Those familiar with SHIBUMI will delight in the attention that Winslow pays to the most minor details in SATORI --- we learn, for example, where Hel acquired his interest in climbing --- and to the return of a number of characters from the original work, most notably Bernard De Lhandes. But it's certainly not a requirement to have read SHIBUMI to appreciate Winslow's faithful creation of the hidden history that Trevanian left unrevealed, one that in places equals the quality of the source work itself.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 28, 2011