In late February I was on the back of a motorbike in the Dominican Republic, at three or so in the morning. A different part of the road, days before, had been washed out by a mudslide.
It was an island of motorcycles, the gas for which would be sold at the side of the road out of two liter plastic bottles. The arterial plaque of human habitation was built up close to the pavement, stress-lines through the tropical mountains, beaches, banana trees.
Beauty mixed with unsightly industrial detritus, persistent life amidst pervasive death, corals and clear water contending with the trash. Posts for wooden fences refused to die, turning back into trees and stretching their defiant arms. It was, to me, like visiting a world of oversized houseplants, shocking to see all those palms and succulents in their natural, rather than potted, dimensions.
One of the Dominicans I was on the motorcycle with, (I’ll call him C) was a grandfather, although he couldn’t have been more than a decade older than me. One of his sons was sitting behind me. I wasn’t sure of the etiquette of this, how to find the right balance between safety and masculinity, settling for one hand on C’s shoulder, and one on the seat behind me. My arms got cold, though, so eventually I crossed them in front of my chest, holding on with my legs, leaning into curves.
After spending a year teaching at an elementary school in Peru, I am okay with not having any children. Being with 18 kids for a year is basically the same thing as having one kid for 18 years, right? So I’ve had that life experience, more or less.
C, his son and I had been to three or four different bars in Samana, about 45 minutes away from the house my parents bought because of real estate prices, and despite the fact that they don’t speak any Spanish. I didn’t either, back at the beginning of 2015, so we spent a lot of time watching dancers sling out Salsa rhythms from their hips, and communicating in the non-verbal but essentially friendly way just as important for travelers as any spoken system. The guy driving the bike had imbibed several beers, it was true, but spread out over about as many hours, so I wasn’t too worried. It was a calculated risk.
My parents are going back to the Dominican Republic in a month or so, while I am sitting for/in their house. They told me, not long after I had gotten off the plane (ending two and a half years overseas) that C had been in a motorcycle accident, and had spent several months in the hospital, with broken bones.
Shibumi, according to the eponymous novel by the thriller writer Travanian, is an ideal of understated aesthetics: a cultivated, minimally perceptible and maximally effective interference in reality.
Nicholai Hel, a multi-lingual, international assassin, arranges the stones in his Basque garden in such a way, for example, that raindrops, falling on them outside of his window at night, make an appealing sound. The hyper-attuned artistry of the polymathic/cultural protagonist is contrasted with the brutish American agents that come to thwart him.
“Diamond possessed the most extensive computer system in the world; Hel had some file cards. Diamond had all the governments of the industrialized West in his pocket; Hel had some Basque friends. Diamond represented atomic energy, the earth’s oil supply, the military/industrial symbiosis, the corrupt and corrupting governments established by the Wad to shield itself from responsibility; Hel represented shibumi, a faded concept of reluctant beauty. And yet, it was obvious that Hel had a considerable advantage in any battle that might be joined.” (341)
You could see why this novel, the last one I read in France, appealed to me. Shibumi seems like another word for post-material sustainability, the kind of extreme adaptability evinced by the ever-traveling and rootless Roma, where you just take what is there, and say, “yes, this is enough.”
At first, though, it seemed like the novel contradicted its own precept. If Hel was meant to embody the principle of near-invisible but highly effective improvements, then as a character he should have been some simple philosopher-gardener, and instead of a political spy-thriller with an enormous bloody body-count, Shibumi should have been a recipe book or something.
Sure, the way Hel kills people is elegant (there is a wonderful disclaimer Travanian puts in about why he can’t describe in detail the assassin’s Naked/Kill method–using everyday objects as lethal weapons–because readers might be harm themselves or others trying to emulate the technique) but the over-the-top self-parodying super-spy trope doesn’t really scream Zen enlightenment.
Or does it? Here’s the main point I’ll make about the novel: maybe by conforming to genre expectations, the shoot-and-blow-em-up master of the universe mentality of CIA-backed Hollywood that the protagonist finds so offensive in Americans, Travanian executes a kind of meta-Shibumi, just shifting the rocks of the formula slightly, so you hear the weather differently.
I gave the novel to a retired evangelical couple that had rented the house at the same time we were staying there. If they read it, I doubt they liked it, especially the passage quoted above, which I’d left bracketed.
“It’s not Americans I find annoying,” Nicholai says in another one,
“it’s Americanism: a social disease of the postindustrial world that must inevitably infect each of the mercantile nations in turn, and is called ‘American’ only because your nation is the most advanced case of the malady, much as one speaks of Spanish flu, or Japanese Type-B encephalitis. Its symptoms are a loss of work ethic, a shrinking of inner resources, and a constant need for external stimulation, followed by spiritual decay and moral narcosis. You can recognize the victim by his constant efforts to get in touch with himself, to believe his spiritual feebleness is an interesting psychological warp, to construe his fleeing from responsibility as evidence that he and his life are uniquely open to new experience. In the latter stages, the sufferer is reduced to seeking that most trivial of human activities: fun.” (306).
There was an island of cactii, sun-bowed, rising out of the sea of salt. The six of us got out of the jeep, our taciturn guide disappearing, as was typical, without explaining where we were or how long we would stay. We started clamoring over the calcite boulders, taking pictures. Then, at the top of the hill: stacks of rocks.
We would see many more of them, on the shores of flamingo lakes, and marking the base of smooth, old, rounded mountains.
“Do you know what they were originally for?” one of the guys on the tour asked, a French-swiss architect whose name was also that of a bird. “So you could see paths in the snow.”
“I think they were also wards, or totems,” I said, having read this online. “Protective spirits, you know, because the shape kind of looks like a person.”
Uyuni for me was a kind of Shibumi, a minimalistic baseline. Resilient, saline-tolerant plants and rock towers were about all that could grow. We connected with tire tracks a rainbow sequence of lakes. Our guide, for the most part, was silent.
When I first got to Peru, I realized I had left my computer charger in the Dominican Republic. Internet bandwidth, anyway, would be prohibitively slow. Whatever–I went for Shibumi, carrying everything on my back, feeling out whatever road was there.
It was silly, I see now, to have spent all of that jetfeul trying to fly somewhere to learn about how to live ecologically. As Hel would say, I was just another benighted, rude American with a terrible accent, in a perpetual quest for “fun.”
Wherever I am, breath and rocks both weigh the same.