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A blog for everything bookish

Saturday, 2 August 2014

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

There are times when I approach reading burnout, when my mind is so full of words that adding to the pile is like adding the proverbial straw to the proverbial camel’s back and I feel like my brain will crack under the pressure. Sometimes I look at my book collection and think ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ and ‘what for?’ and wonder at the insanity that drives me to read every day. Sometimes I want (or need) a break. Yet I never stop reading. At those times I turn to something familiar, something soothing or easy to read. It is times like this that I turn to The Last Samurai. 

The Last Samurai is not easy to read (except it is), it is dense and complex, it is funny (very funny) and implausible, it is clever and mind-blowing and educational and fascinating. It is a book for people who think boredom a fate worse than death. It is not boring.

There’s no neat little summary that will give you a flavour of The Last Samurai, so instead I’ll give you a quick overview of the story. It starts with Sibylla, or perhaps Sibylla’s parents, and their frustrated ambitions. Sibylla herself has moved to London (having blagged her way into Oxford) having grown up in various towns in America that were ‘excited to get their first motel’. Sibylla discovers she cannot be an academic after frustrated attempts to translate a German text Aristarchs Athetesen in der Homerkritik at which point she discovers:
 
“There are people who think contraception is immoral because the object of copulation is procreation. In a similar way there are people who think the only reason to read a book is to write a book; people should call up books from the dust and the dark and write thousands of words to be sent down to the dust and the dark which can be called up to join them so other people can send further thousands of words to join them in the dust and the dark. Sometimes a book can be called from the dust and the dark to produce a book which can be bought in shops, and perhaps it is interesting, but the people who buy it and read it are not serious people, if they were serious they would not care about the interest they would be writing thousands of words to consign to the dust and the dark.”

Sibylla discovers that this is not a life for her, but she doesn’t want to return to the States so instead she takes a job working as a typist in a publishing house. This decision leads her to a party which leads her to ‘Liberace’ (not the) which leads her to becoming the unsuspecting mother of Ludoviticus (or David or Stephen), child genius and prodigy over whom she troubles so greatly and about whom this story revolves.

Ludo is an unusual child, with an aptitude for languages and logic. Sibylla teaches him to read English at 3, Greek at 4 and when we enter their story he can already speak Arabic and is desperate to learn Japanese. This desperation stems, in part, from the family relationship with the movie (Kurosawa’s masterpiece) Seven Samurai. Sibylla, reading a magazine one day, makes this terrible discovery from which spirals the rest of the story:

Today I read these terrible words in the paper:

In the absence of a benevolent male, the single mother faces an uphill battle in raising her son. It is essential that she provides the boy with male role models – neighbours or uncles, or friends of the family, to share their interests and hobbies.

This is all very well but Ludo is an uncleless boy, and I don’t happen to know any well meaning stamp collectors (and if I did I would do my best to avoid them). It’s worrying. I once read that Argentine soldiers tied up dissidents and took them up in planes over the sea and threw them out. I thought: well, if L needs a role model let him watch Seven Samurai & he will have 8.”


Enter Ludo, who at the age of 5 begins to speak for himself. Ludo is desperate to know who his father is, and discovers the truth remarkably quickly. Disappointed and unable to confront his father with the truth, he embarks on a quest to choose his own father from role models he has discovered through his reading or through Sibylla’s many anecdotes. Using a plot device from Seven Samurai, in which Kambei (leader of the seven) finds other samurai to join their band by attempting to trick them. In the movie, the samurai are lured to a building by Rikichi (a farmer seeking samurai to rid his village of the threat of bandits). Behind the door novice samurai Katsushiro is waiting with a raised stick which he is to bring down on the head of the unsuspecting samurai as he walks through the door. A true samurai, Kambei reasons, will see through the trick “A true samurai will parry the blow”). If they see through the trick, they are the kind of samurai they are looking for. In this way Ludo brings down his own stick on each of the ‘chosen’ (I am your son) and only if they see through the trick will they be suitable to become his chosen father.

In the course of his adventures Ludo encounters a traveller, an artist, a campaigner/kidnap victim, a Nobel prize winner, a musician. What unfolds from each encounter is that this journey is as much about Ludo’s relationship with his mother, and his fear that she will commit suicide, that she only chose to live because of him. That in the course of his explorations, he is trying to find out who she is and how he can save her. In the Seven Samurai world, Sibylla is Rikichi, the farmer with burning eyes without which there would be no story.
The Last Samurai is a marvellous book, full of detail and humour and definitely not boring. It covers a huge range of themes including language (Greek and Japanese), aerodynamics, logic, algebra, music, education, the difficulties of being a single mother, death, the Tube, suicide, ambition and, more critically, the movies of Akira Kurosawa. It is a clever and complex book which benefits from multiple readings (sometimes one after the other) interspersed with viewings of Seven Samurai which is an excellent movie (not comparable, in any way, to The Magnificent Seven which Sibylla calls out very humorously “Look, tall men in tight jeans” which, when stacked up against Seven Samurai, makes no sense at all. It is a homage in the way my finger daubing would be an homage to Picasso) and well worth the watch whether or not inspired by this excellent book.
In the words of Red Devlin, “oh go on”. Just read it.
The Last Samurai receives an implausible 20 out of 10 Biis.