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Review: Helen Dewitt’s “The Last Samurai”

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After being out-of-print for years and sixteen years since its original publication, Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai has been republished by New Directions. There ought to be a loud cheer to mark the occasion and maybe, just maybe, DeWitt will get the attention she deserves. She’s been the subject of a recent profile in New York (“Publishing Can Break Your Heart”). The article mentions a slew of unpublished novels and a flood of bad luck. The Last Samurai is richly innovative in form, quirky in a challenging way, mesmerizing in its plotting and, above all, astonishing and, yes, brilliant. And I confess here to great embarrassment that I did not read the novel all those years ago because I didn’t want to read what I thought was another Japanese story. My loss, of course, because as others have already said, it’s a great American novel. It ushered in a new century, and its playful form should have been a clue about that. There are passages in Greek, Arabic, Japanese, and other languages—all in their appropriate linguistic form. The original compositors must have been driven nuts by putting the text together. DeWitt appears to have lost out to cost overrides for producing the novel. It doesn’t help that Talk Miramax Books, the original publisher, no longer exists.

Enough about that. What’s the novel about? Poor decisions, loss, failure, genius, nurturing, and the search for a father. These themes begin with Sibylla Newman’s grandfather, a Methodist minister in Sioux City, Iowa. His son is awarded a “full scholarship to Harvard at the age of 15.” But this father, fearing a secular education, talks his son into going to a third-rate divinity school. It’s a terrible decision, but it does result in his marriage to the woman who will become Sibylla’s mother and a link to a talented family that has squandered its musical talents. And, of course, Sibylla herself who has inherited the remarkable genes from both of her parents that will take her, as a young woman, to Oxford to study classics (as DeWitt herself did).

Sibylla studies Greek and supports herself as a copy editor at an esoteric publisher of dictionaries of foreign languages. She’s introduced to a lastsamuraisuccessful travel writer (without much of an imagination) at a literary event one evening. In spite of her contempt for him (she refers to him as “Liberace”), she confesses, “It was a terrible mistake.” The pregnancy results in the birth of her son, Ludo, whom she raises by herself in London, supporting the two of them by a low-paying job of word-processing texts, mostly of third-rate hobby magazines.

Sibylla may have lost out with her plan to study classics but there’s no reason that she can’t introduce Ludo to them. Using the example of other child progenies (John Stuart Mill, Mozart, YoYo Ma), she begins teaching Ludo Greek when he’s two years old. Two words a day, at first, providing her son with magic markers to highlight the words until he knows enough that they begin to form patterns and, subsequently, phrases that make sense to him. By four, Ludo, the “Homerolexic infant,” is reading the Odyssey on the Circle Line of the Underground, which the two of them frequent in order to stay warm in the winter months. (These are the days when British flats came with heaters that required shillings fed into them to produce heat.) Their madcap encounters with other passengers are pure delight. I often laughed uncontrollably.

So we’ve got this four-year-old genius, who shortly begins reading other languages (following the highlighting system), plus conventional books that might attract a child progeny. Sibylla notes of him, “Of course L has not been reading the Odyssey the whole time. The pushcart is also loaded with White Fang, VIKING!, Tar-Kutu: Dog of the Frozen North, Marduk: Dog of the Mongolian Steppes, Pete: Black Dog of the Dakota, THE CARNIVORES, THE PREDATORS, THE BIG CATS and The House at Pooh Corner. For the past few days he has also been reading White Fang for the third time. Sometimes we get off the train and he runs up and down the platform. Sometimes he counts up to 100 or so in one or more languages while eyes glaze up and down the car. Still he has been reading the Odyssey enough for a straw pool of Circle Line opinion on the subject of small children & Greek.”

Sibylla who is stressed out much of the time worries that Ludo, with no visible father, needs male role models. She’s obsessed with Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, which she first saw at the university, and which she watches repeatedly after renting the video. “Mifune [one of the characters in the film] is making strange faces and noises now replicated in miniature by my side. Kurosawa is right, he can turn on a dime & watching quicksilver Mufune stern Shimura ardent Kimura I suddenly realize that everything is going to be all right, I am providing my fatherless uncleless boy not with 8 male role models (6 samurai 1 gatecrashing farmer’s son 1 fearless farmer) but 16 (8 characters, 8 actors) 17 including Kurosawa who does not appear. Only one of the characters is a perfectionist in the practice of his art but all 8 actors & the director who does not appear show this terrible perfectionism making a total of 17 male role models (not including the extras).” Quite a method, she believes, needed to teach “the importance of rational thought.”

By the time he is six (“and now we are six”), Ludo has taught himself numerous languages and become obsessed with discovering who is his father since Sibylla will not tell him. She attempts to enroll him in a public school, where he’s a total misfit, and when that fails she continues to “homeschool” him. There are crazy incidents in the story such as when the two of them go to the cinema to watch The Crying Game, but since that’s a movie for adults only, Sibylla dresses him in a “hunchbacked midget costume” so they won’t be denied admission. Finally, when he is eleven he discovers some of his mother’s papers that tell him who his father is.

The first half of The Last Samurai is related from Sibylla’s perspective, but once Ludo discovers his father’s identity, he takes over the narration. There are wonderful vignettes recording the boy’s encounters with a series of men he picks to be his surrogate father once he meets his biological father and determines that he (the so-called Liberace) is boring. So Ludo picks men who are equal to his own intellect: Nobel Prize winners, famous explorers, internationally known figures, mathematicians, and musicians. In each case after he figures out a way to trick the man so he can be alone with him, he delivers the coup de grace: “I am your son.” He’s on a quest, you could say, to find a perfect father, but this has got to be one of the strangest quests ever undertaken.

The Last Samurai is unlike any other novel you will ever read. The linguistic pyrotechnics continue throughout the novel. Ludo also becomes interested in aerodynamics, language formation and chess, among other things. Oddly, he never becomes interested in music, as his mother once did. Yet, in this highly eclectic narrative, filled with obscure exotica, there are fascinating details that are tossed out and then ignored as Sibylla, first, and then Ludo pursue their crazy interests. For example, after Ludo learns Japanese and realizes that there are words in The Seven Samurai that he does not understand, he locates a copy of a book about Japanese street slang and discovers that the English subtitles have censored the story. It’s an amazing detail that questions the entire practice of using subtitles to deodorize a movie for viewers in another culture. Great topic for a graduate seminar.

Helen DeWitt’s The Seven Samurai is a literary feast, as challenging and anticipatory as a super-charged chess game. Reading it, you feel that you have unlocked Pandora’s box. Sibylla and Ludo are an idiosyncratic pair of heroes. Their educational odyssey will blow you away.

Helen DeWitt: The Last Samurai

New Directions: 482 pp., $18.95

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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