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Book Review: The Last Samurai

tls

summary from Amazon: Sibylla, an American-at-Oxford turned loose on London, finds herself trapped as a single mother after a misguided one-night stand. High-minded principles of child-rearing work disastrously well. J. S. Mill (taught Greek at three) and Yo Yo Ma (Bach at two) claimed the methods would work with any child; when these succeed with the boy Ludo, he causes havoc at school and is home again in a month. (Is he a prodigy, a genius? Readers looking over Ludo’s shoulder find themselves easily reading Greek and more.) Lacking male role models for a fatherless boy, Sibylla turns to endless replays of Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai. But Ludo is obsessed with the one thing he wants and doesn’t know: his father’s name. At eleven, inspired by his own take on the classic film, he sets out on a secret quest for the father he never knew. He’ll be punched, sliced, and threatened with retribution. He may not live to see twelve. Or he may find a real samurai and save a mother who thinks boredom a fate worse than death.

A good samurai will parry the blow

warning: quite a lot of sentimentality I’ll cringe over when I reread this later

I feel fated to have read this book. Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai is a veritable tome, various editions being over 500 pages. It contains smatterings of French and Ancient Greek and Japanese and Old Norse. It is untethered by stylistic conventions; by conventional formatting. It is also, as a blurb says on the back, a “good yarn.”

It is a good yarn that I stayed up until 2AM to finish, and when I awoke the first feeling I had was one of floating contentment, and the first thought I had was I just saw something beautiful. Followed by: What did I see? Followed by: The Last Samurai.

I must have literally dreamt all night about the book.

In the book one of the narrators – the single mother, Sibylla – thinks for a time that “books should be more like the film The Godfather, in which at one stage Al Pacino goes to Sicily and the Italian is all in Italian.” She later develops her thoughts, ruminating, “Perhaps a writer would think of the monosyllables and lack of grammatical inflection in Chinese, and of how this would sound next to lovely long Finnish words all double letters & long vowels in 14 cases or lovely Hungarian all prefixes suffixes, & having first thought of that would then think of some story about Hungarians or Finns with Chinese.”

I lived in Paris for a year, and during my time in Europe I enjoyed the polyglot pocket-communities I encountered and participated in. Places where conversations would slide easily in and out of English, French, Italian, German, Japanese; whatever languages people had and could offer. I have since harbored a desire that we be more comfortable with languages – not necessarily with knowing and understanding them (although that would be great), but with encountering them. It’s less ambitious than Sibylla’s thoughts, but I think it contains the same idealism.

The Last Samurai is the literary version of my polyglot utopian fantasy. I love the book’s indulgences in foreign tongues; I love its characters’ intellectual interests, unhidden erudition, their quirks and bookish idiosyncrasies. This book felt so deeply and privately written for me, which doesn’t feel like a confession of narcissism but rather like a sacred bond of connection between me and whoever else harbors these quirks and bookish idiosyncrasies.

Maybe I shouldn’t write so emotionally about a book that seeks (perhaps) to challenge the reader in a different way. But Sibylla is a single mother who lives in London, makes no money as a typist, and rides the Circle Line with her son every day, going round and round and round. When he asks why she doesn’t return to the U.S., she brings up her father’s hatred of Kissinger.

“You should have heard him when they gave a [Harvard] chair to Dr. Kissinger, a man with the blood of millions on his hands.”

This book understands the deep link between thinking about the big picture – history, mankind, politics – and feeling too depressed to move. It understands humanity precisely.

I will not be able to write a satisfactory review. I will only say: I read this book because it felt fated, because it was a big book written by a woman and I liked the thought of that, because it was out-of-print and recently re-published, and I thought now was an opportune time to give DeWitt a book sale. The book’s summary did not appeal to me, although the characters – Sibylla and her good-natured, obstinate boy, Ludo – have won my affection. I will say the climax moved me; I cried. And I finished the book a few days ago and am now sleeping with it under my pillow.

 

Here are some links to people who talk about the book less soppily than me, including Helen DeWitt herself:

DeWitt talking about the book

“The Trouble of Rational Thought” 

 

 

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