Nicholai Hel helps his father commit suicide, and suffers both personal and political consequences as a result. Nicholai Hel is a young, talented espionage apprentice who wants to make his father proud. His father is a Japanese general and a master of the game of Go. As a young person, Nicholai studied Go under his father's teaching, eventually becoming a master of the game himself. Nicholai also learned a number of Samurai-Influenced martial arts, numerous languages (including Chinese and Russian), and a host of other skills of stealth fitting a military spy or assassin. His father's main teaching was something called "shibumi," a characteristic of true manhood. "Shibumi" includes many aspects: intelligence, honor, and practical intelligence. His father encourages Nicholai to dedicate his entire life to cultivating "shibumi."
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While working for the U.S. government as an encryption specialist, Nicholai receives word from his father: the old general has been captured and detained by the Russian military. He asks Nicholai to come see him immediately. Nicholai finds his imprisoned father frail and beaten; clearly suffering from mistreatment at the hands of his ominous looking guards. His father signals to him a gesture indicating that he wishes for Nicholai to kill him. Nicholai complies with his fathers last wish, swiftly killing him with a pencil tip and saving him from decades of torture and isolation.
The infuriated guards capture and detain Nicholai, holding him in his father's stead. For years, they keep him locked in solitary confinement. Nicholai uses the mental concentration techniques his father taught him as a young person in order to maintain his mental and physical sharpness. Eventually, the Russian government learns of Nicholai's expansive skill set. They commute his sentence and retain him as a spy.
Nicholai is sent on assignment to China. There, he perfects, refines, and practicess his craft. At one point, Nicholai uses elaborate costumery and misdirection to pass himself off as a Basque priest. Later, to gain access to classified materials held by the Chinese government, he sneaks in to the national achieves building. To slip past the motion detectors, Nicholai uses a form of self-hyposis/autosuggestion his father had taught him as a boy.
Nicholai serves as a Russian spy through the duration of World War II. When the war ends, he is released from service and permitted to retire. He moves to the Basque countriside of France, looking forward to a life of simple pleasures. Nichoai plans to spend his senior years in pursuits such as gardening, cooking, refnining his skill in the game of Go, and befriending his neighbors. He believes that he has lived a life of honor, and has acquired the characteristics of wisdom, wit, and integrity that his father identified as "shibumi."
Best part of story, including ending:
It's hard to get comfortable when reading this story because you never know which way Trevanian is going to spin things. For example, while the plot is action-oriented, there are a number of spiritual and cultural themes reflected in the story as well. In some ways the story is very light-hearted, with Trevanian clearly poking fun at some of the tropes of his genre. Yet there's also a serious quality to Nicholai; in particular his pursuit of "shibumi" is quite authentic and real. This mix of light-heartedness and seriousness makes for a compelling, interesting, and suspenseful read.
Best scene in story:
Nicholai visits his dad in prison. As he reaches toward a pencil lying on the table, Nicholai notices just a brief glint in his father's eye. He correctly surmises that it's a request for Nicholai to help the old general die honorably and peacefully. Nicholai quickly approaches his father, murmuring gentle words as he painlessly kills him by applying force to a pressure point near his right temple. In this moment, Nicholai perfectly embodies the concepts of shibumi. Though he spends the whole rest of the story wondering if he's acquired it yet, it's clear to readers that Nicholai has possessed this ephermal quality all along.
Opinion about the main character:
Nicholai is smooth, talented, and not easily ruffled. He maintains a sense of quiet calm even amidst great danger and chaos. He is likable in the way that most action heroes are. Nicholai also has a depth of character beyond his function as hero. His personal pursuit of the ideal of "shibumi" creates a rich inner/subjective dynamic in which Nicholai experiences uncertainty, pain, yearning, fear of failure and all the other things that makes us human and fallible. Although he's super talented and cool, Nicholai is also weak, human, and unsure of himself. That makes him relatable and likable.