Shibumi turns Wabi-sabi

by baddieworld

I have been interested in things Japanese for a few years now. Like many girls of my age, I grew up with Sailor Moon and Mamoru-san, singing along to the high-pitched main theme song and wishing I had long blond hair and magical super-powers too. Hmm. So you could say that my interest sprang from that successful first contact with Japanese pop culture through one of its most ubiquitous representatives: the anime.

In recent years, I have begun to leave the kiddie pool and venture out to less shallow waters. I tried some of Matsuo Basho’s haiku. (The likes of which sound something like this:

Old pond / Frog jumps in water / Sound.) Double-hmmmm. I chortled at the humour in Mori Ogai’s Wild Geese, and became sad and ponderous reading the lines of Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. I shook my head in wonder at Canadian-Japanese Hiromi Goto’s magical worlds, and devoured her Chorus of Mushrooms and Hopeful Monsters. I continued to watch animated films, with a predilection towards the works of Hayao Miyazaki, and was thrilled to write an academic paper on Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away. I discovered Japanese film directors, going past the genius of Akira Kurosawa to smaller, less-known names. I have taken Japanese lessons for more than two years, and practiced religiously with my lovely and patient hair-dresser in Covent Garden. Arigatou, Takashi-san!

I went to a few tea-ceremony classes in a traditional school in Greenwich, complete with Japanese garden and tatami mats. And I discovered the pleasure of concentrating on a small task and repeating it in order to perfect it. On focusing your mind completely on your body. And finding the beauty in simplicity. My friends asked my why I was interested in the tea ceremony, as there was little chance I would ever practice it. To my mind, this made it even better. Learning an ancient, graceful ritual with no ulterior purpose gave me an intense, profound  satisfaction. Finally, I became enamoured of Japanese food. Most of it anyway, since I hate fish and such with a vengeance. But I am a sucker for dishes like okonomiyaki, or delicate sencha tea, or miso-soup with cruchy algae and a bit of fluffy tofu. And there is a God called William Curley in London, and he makes the sweets of angels: Amedei-chocolate truffles, with Japanese inspired flavours (think apricot/ wasabi, or yuzu filling). If there was one thing I could take with me to a deserted island…

Maybe it will come as no surprise to anyone that when I stumbled across the title Shibumi a few months back, I was intrigued. It is after all, a novel describing a European who grows up in Japan and becomes more traditionally Japanese than the Japanese themselves. It is about a genius. It’s funny. It has been hailed as a fantastic post-modern work. And the author, Trevanian, apparently wore a cloak of mystery until his death, or something like that. Well, I said to myself, we might be on to something here…

And so I ordered the book on Amazon, from a second hand dealer somewhere in America. What I got was one of the most battered and yellow-paged books I have ever had the (mis)fortune of owning. You see, I love the look and feel of books, and I take an extraordinary amount of delight in, say, the thick paper and well-defined ink of a new hardback. The textures, the fragrance, the overall impression… Needless to say, this book was different. But while reading all 400+ smelly pages of it, I began to think of how its character might relate to the concepts the book discusses.

Shibumi (渋み) is not only the title of the novel, but also the state that the hero strives to attain throughout his life. It is an ascetic, holy level of leading one’s life that commoners need not even dream of. Shibui, in contradistinction, is described as the weaker, stylistic manifestation of this particular aesthetic: simple, subtle, and unobtrusive beauty. The third concept which appears in the text is wabi-sabi; this has to do with the acceptance of transience and imperfections.

It is perhaps worth mentioning at this point that Shibumi plays at least one major joke on the reader. The text introduces the Japanese game of Go and pretends to rigorously label chapters in accordance to its tactical moves. It boasts a brilliance which has been exposed as an intentional hoax. The reader is tricked, and lured onto uncertain grounds. I knew all this before I started. The effect this knowledge had on me was to give birth to a healthy dose of suspicion towards most information offered by the text, some of it so outrageous it must (might not?) not be true. And finally, towards the end of the text, I grew so tired with the main character, Nicholai, whose flamboyance and arrogance seemed so far removed from even the shibui he seemed to deride, never mind the shibumi he claimed to practice. That is why, when I finished the novel, I placed it in my bookshelf with a certain resentment. Two minutes later, I heard a thump accompanied by a splash.

Through an uncanny coincidence, Shibumi had fallen into the little plastic basin I had, for the first time ever, placed in my living room. It was filled with “handwash only” laundry, and naturally, soapy water. Obviously, the book got thoroughly drenched, so much so that it spent three days in my bathroom drying. Pitiful and crinkled, it is now shabbier than ever. Petty of me, but take this, Nicholai Hel: Baddie can turn shibumi into wabi-sabi!

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