Satori by Don Winslow
This literary gem is kinda like the thinking man’s Bond. It might make you feel that Jason Bourne has now met Indiana Jones. Satori is an espionage thriller of the highest calibre that will leave you gasping for more.
The novel is based on Trevanian’s (Rodney Whitaker) novel, Shibumi, which Don Winslow read as a young man. Satori is the prequel to that apparent classic, penned with the approval of the deceased Whitaker’s estate. Rebel Voice has not yet read Shibumi. Indeed, Rebel Voice had never heard of it until indulging in Satori. But Shibumi is now high on the list of must-reads for this site.
Nicholai Hel is released from solitary confinement in a US-run prison in Japan in 1951. Having been brutalized by his CIA interrogators, he is conflicted when offered the option of working for the Company as his price for freedom. However, Nicholai has few other options of value, and decides to accept his role and the specific assignment they have for him.
His handler is Ellis Haverford, a spook with some semblance of a conscience still remaining. Haverford arranges for Hel to receive training to better fit his new identity of french arms dealer. It is this training that brings Nicholai into contact with the stunningly beautiful and sexy Solange, a French courtesan in the temporary employ of the CIA. Nicholai finds himself falling in love, for the first, with his instructor, and Solange gives every indication that she feels the same for Nicholai.
But Hel has many enemies. Some are known and some he has yet to meet. Major Diamond is one. He is unhappy with the new arrangements concerning Nicholai as it was Diamond who led the horrific torture of Hel whilst in US custody. The vile Major fears Nicholai’s eventual desire for revenge. This friction within the ranks of the CIA is just one more problem for our lead protagonist as he prepares for what is seen as effectively being a suicide mission. Nicholai has been tasked with assassinating the Soviet commissioner to Communist China.
Yuri Voroshenin is a survivor. He made it through the Stalinist purges, gaining favour with the mad dictator by being both sneaky and ruthlessly brutal. He also made himself extremely wealthy in the process by stealing the family fortune of Countess Ivanov, a young White Russian forced to flee her native land for Shanghai after the Russian civil war. It was there that the Countess gave birth to her only child, a son she named Nicholai.
Haverford, in typical spook fashion, plays the percentages in motivating Hel to undertake such a perilous assignment. It succeeds and Hel is suitably enthusiastic to settle a score for his wronged mother.
The action moves dramatically from Japan to China as we follow Nicholai’s preparations. It’s exciting stuff and the plot is perfectly paced. Winslow paints a vivid picture of both nations and walks us through the traditions and cultures of both. If there is one fault with this novel, it is that the author over-indulges in the use and explanation of both Japanese and Chinese terminology and language. It’s educational and doesn’t do a great deal of harm to the overall presentation, but it does interrupt the smooth flow of the narrative at times.
After much danger and a number of attempts on his own life, our highly trained super-spook is successful in his mission, but at a cost. Nicholai is very badly wounded. Yet, with assistance from sympathetic Chinese Army officers, he escapes China for further exploits, this time in both Laos and Vietnam.
It is in Saigon that the scheming and back-stabbing begins in earnest. It is also there, in the Paris of the Orient, that Nicholai again meets Solange, now the consort of the puppet Emperor under French rule. Hel finds himself in much danger as he attempts to negotiate his way through a fractured society in an effort to supply rocket launchers to the Viet Ming, an indigenous communist rebel group fighting the occupying French forces. It’s a murky world that Nicholai has dropped into.
The entire story has depth and many threads. It weaves this way and that as the various players try to help or kill Nicholai, whereas Hel only wants to keep his promise to the Chinese officers who saved his life, and perhaps create a life for both Solange and himself. It was never going to be easy for our principled hero.
Of note, and great delight, is the lingual magnificence of the Belgian dwarf, De Lhandes, who entertains with one-liners such as, It is a mournful state of affairs when the considerable girth of one’s masculine member is adversely affected by the regrettable slimness of one’s money clip. This is in reference to his lack of funds for prostitutes. Or how about this exclamation, By the blue veins on Jane Russell’s sainted breasts. Or this, By the priapism of a pope…!
Satori is an absolute delight. It is one that can’t be put down. The exploits of Nicholai and co will keep any reader enthralled throughout, as we sweep through exotic lands and cultures, all the time heading for an explosive and hard-hitting finale. Satori – which is Japanese for an enlightenment with respect to existence – is a novel that will open your eyes to just how well Don Winslow can write. It will also awaken you to the glories and intrigue of the beautiful lands portrayed within.
Sult scale rating: 8.5 out of 10. Highly recommended. Yet caution is advised. You will want to cancel all appointments and ignore your loved ones until you finish. You may even end up moving to the Far East and learning martial arts.