The Last Samurai in London
No, it doesn’t have anything to do with that awful Tom Cruise movie
The Last Samurai
The Last Samurai is Helen DeWitt’s colossal debut novel, originally published in 2000, and reissued this May by New Directions. The story follows the journals and written correspondence of Sibylla, an American woman in London who happens to be a genius. Brilliant, cynical and desperate to not move back to the US, she’s become a single mother after a mediocre one-night stand with an equally mediocre writer, and is now struggling to make ends meet as a typist for a British publishing house. Meanwhile, she begins homeschooling her young son Ludo, who shows all the signs of being a true prodigy himself. By age 6 he has read the entire Iliad and Odyssey in Greek and is learning Japanese, which is only one of the dozen languages he will know by the time he’s 11. To Sibylla’s annoyance, strangers on the subway constantly comment on the impressive books that her toddler is reading: “Isn’t he a bit young?” and “The Greek etymology is so helpful for spelling” are her least favorites. It quickly becomes apparent that Ludo is perfectly capable of learning on his own, so he is given a set of highlighters and free reign of Sibylla’s sizeable book collection. This works disastrously well: Ludo is studying physics and reading Aristotle while other children his age are learning their ABCs. He doesn’t make many friends.
Sibylla refuses to introduce Ludo to his father, or even reveal his name, on the grounds that he’s an idiot who would corrupt Ludo’s thriving brilliance and try to put him in school: an idea that both mother and son find repulsive. Unfortunately, his father’s identity is the only information that Ludo truly wants and can’t learn on his own. Searching for a stand-in father figure, Sibylla turns to a classic: Akira Kurosawa’s “masterpiece of modern cinema” Seven Samurai. If he can’t have a real father, then how about seven fictional fathers?
The narrative switches to the perspective of Ludo about halfway through the book, when he begins journaling. Through his intelligent young eyes we see some truths about Sybilla that weren’t apparent before: She’s depressed. Very depressed. She begins sleeping in late and slacking off at work. She’s bored—and Ludo knows that Sibylla considers boredom a fate worse than death. When he finds a freshly handwritten will on Sibylla’s desk, Ludo knows that he has to do something.
He quietly pays attention to the things that make her happy: a presentation by the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician Dr. Sorabji, news that the daring international journalist Red Devlin has been freed from prison in Azerbaijan, a rare concert by the world-renowned classical pianist Yamamoto. With lots of research and a knack for getting into places he’s not invited, Ludo tracks down each of these men and delivers his speech: “I’m your son.”
Ludo collects these men and their stories—recruiting a list of chosen fathers, just as Kambei recruits the warriors in Seven Samurai. Some believe him, but many don’t. Some react with anger, others think it’s hilarious and invite him to stick around for dinner. Along the way he learns to play cribbage, witnesses a suicide, gets a letter of recommendation to Oxford and a square punch in the face (the last two from the same guy). Each of the men he encounters teaches him something about the world and about people: For instance, it turns out you can convince most people to do something for you just by smiling and saying, “Oh, go on” or “I insist.” Whether it was his intention or not, Ludo gets a real-world education from these unsuspecting fictional fathers.
The Last Samurai is a brilliant work that turns a classic story on its head. While on its surface it’s a fairly traditional “hero’s journey” sort of story (What could be more classic than a boy searching for his father?), there’s something more interesting and much more touching here than in many similar tales. While Ludo does learn to be a man on this strange, modern journey, he does it all in the service of something much more important to him: saving his mother. In the end, it’s this care and dedication—not his brilliance and brave feats—that makes him a genuine samurai.