The Last Samurai
- Publication Date:
- 04 October 2001
- Modern & Contemporary
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Not about Japan and only about samurais in the respect that the son uses Seven Samurai as a model for searching for his father.It's about what makes a worthwhile life or a life worth living. And it's about the value of granting an individual autonomy over his/her own existence and what, if anything, we can responsibly do to aid a person who is in distress without compromising their autonomy. And it's about what it means to look for your father, and who is a father, and what is it to have a father.And it's about brilliance and the limitations of brilliance.I love this book beyond all reason.
Could be destined to become one of my all-time favourites.
Recommended for: fellow whizkid-lovers!, fans of the Glass family, people interested in foreign languages, education, and child-rearing, people who like bildungsromans, smartasses.I have mentioned my obsession with whizkids many times before, although now that I think of it, it was never on this site. So then you won’t mind if I repeat myself. Here goes. I LOVE WHIZKIDS. There is possibly no subject matter in the world more certain to get my attention. If you happen to mention in passing a movie that has a child prodigy protagonist in it, or a child prodigy secondary character, or possibly even a child prodigy chimney sweeper that only appears for five seconds during the entire movie, chances are I’m gonna watch it. This all started years ago with Salinger’s Glass family, my favourite favourite favourite fictional characters which no one has yet – and probably never will – manage to dethrone. There were many whizkids I fell in love with after that. Stanley Spector from Magnolia, Klaus and Violet from the Series of Unfortunate Events, Dexter from Dexter’s Laboratory, Brain (Pinky & the Brain – although not exactly a “child”), Hermione Granger, Velma, Teddy and Esme and more recently (recently for me) Joshua Waitzkin from Searching for Bobby Fischer. Like I said none of these will probably be able to dethrone Seymour and Zooey Glass from their no.1 spot. But Ludo, age seven, child prodigy and the protagonist of The Last Samurai sure comes in a close second. I loved this boy with all my heart. And though usually when people say they love a kid they only mean it in a “aww he’s so cute” way, I mean it in a “aww he’s so cute and smart and interesting and brilliant and damaged and fantabulous and loveable and heartbreaking and great and can-I-please-please-please-order-one-just-like-him-somewhere?”I want to make one thing clear in case you were wondering: the title coincides with the title of a known Hollywood movie with Tom Cruise in it. That is just an unfortunate accident . The book in fact takes its title from another movie: Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. The relationship between Seven Samurai and this book is not so straightforward as the back cover would have you believe. Yes, there is the obvious plot connection: Sibylla, Ludo’s mother is worried about her son growing up without a role model since his father is ignorant about his existence, so she decides to play the movie every day for him in order to give him not one but 8 male role models: the seven samurai and Kurosawa himself! But the relationship between book and movie is much more complex than that. There are beliefs and ideologies embedded in the movie that have become part of who Ludo is. There are life lessons to be had from it. There are languages to be learned. There are words of wisdom to be memorized and repeated. There are fictional characters that become real friends. The complexities of the parallel that DeWitt is trying to draw between the two is mostly up to the reader to figure out. I don’t want to say anything more because I don't want to spoil this wonderful novels for anyone. Suffice to say, The Last Samurai ties with I Know This Much Is True for my top reads of 2009. Go read it.
I found this to be an amazing first novel. Helen Dewitt's The Last Samurai is narrated mostly by a young boy Ludo (aka David, Steven) who's mother Sybylla is an American ex-pat ekeing out a living in contemporary London doing odd jobs related to the publishing industry. Ludo is a very precocious young man. Along with the incidentals (books and toys) of a pre school aged boy he is learning to read Homer in the original source language. As well he works obsessively on other languages and complex mathematical and scientific problems. Being a product of a one night stand he worries his mother continually about his paternity. She for her part is not forthcoming. She'd rather forget him. He bugs her and bothers her about all the above as she works at home prepping and typing material for her various sources of income. Economically things are very tight for them--and if I'm getting the picture right--the both of them often ride the London tube around to get away from their home (sometimes stopping at libraries and museums where they don't have to payfor entry) so as to save on the heating bill--young Ludo often making quite an impression on other riders and/or passersby with his mathematical and linguistic skills. At home he and his mother watch Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai incessantly--Ludo using it to improve on his Japanese and as a device to look into the worlds of adulthood and human conflict. An attempt to enter him into the local school system at age 6 turns into a debacle. Being light years ahead of the other kids in practically everything he becomes a disruption to the whole class. As the novel moves along we see Ludo as well as a young teenager--searching through his mothers papers he discovers his fathers identity. He tracks him down but is disappointed by the man he finds. He beings a new search for a surrogate father. An adventurer, an artist, a Nobel prize winning scientist, an aristocratic gambler etc. He follows them back to their homes claiming to be a son from a past romantic affair. It doesn't always convince and he finds all his prospects to be in some way or another fatally flawed. His last candidate as it happens is already predetermined on a course of suicide. Our young prodigy is more or less left at this point to determine his own course through life.To conceptualize is one thing--to bring about that conception is another. What makes this book remarkable is that Dewitt dreams big and has the talent and the will to realize it. For me it's a remarkable book from beginning to end. And it's a challenging one in many respects as Dewitt makes clear right from the beginning that human beings are capable of much more than they think--that perhaps too many of us set our sights too low throughout their lives. 3 year old Ludo does not think that knowing Greek or working on Japanese alphabetical characters is a big deal. It may astound all the grownups he runs into but if a 3 year old can do it why can't anybody? And it's something I find true. I can't speak Spanish but I can read it at least somewhat (I'm horribly out of practice right now though) because of a project I gave myself several years ago. Anyway Dewitt has a very finely tuned ear for conversation, inner conversation as well and a very subtle sense for the comedic turn. The prose seems to flow effortlessy and there are no real gaps or inconsistencies in her story. It's an enjoyable read--and certainly recommended by this reviewer.
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