At the age of four he is reading
Homer in the original Greek. Then he moves onto Hebrew,
Japanese, Old Norse and Inuit; studying advanced mathematical
techniques, including Fourier analysis and Laplace
transformations, and, as the title hints, endlessly watching and
analysing Akira Kurosawa’s cinematic masterpiece The Seven
Just sample his
you are ready for it, said Sib flipping through the book. You
can tell just from the names of the mathematicians - Bernoulli’s
equations - Euler’s equations - Gauss’s divergence theorem -
I have no idea what these actually ARE, but essentially the
mathematics at the heart of the subject seems to be
post-Newtonian developments in calculus, 18th and 19th century
stuff. How hard can it be?" And as if this weren’t good
enough have you ever come across a book with a chapter that goes
Helen DeWitt, a writer who clearly believes in taking chances,
there is all of this and loads more. Linguistic skills,
numerical abilities, the search for a father and deeper
sociological issues appear with marked regularity. The book
draws on themes topical and perennial—the hothousing of
children, the familiar literary trope of the quest for the
(absent) father. To address these and a host of other issues,
DeWitt divides the book into two halves.
describes the education of Ludo, the second follows Ludo in his
search for his father and father figures. The first stresses a
sacred, Apollonian pursuit of logic and unravels the fascinating
world of languages and knowledge. The second applies this
knowledge to the world of emotion and human ambitions. With that
inevitably spring the expected elements of human frustrations
and failures. But despite all its strokes of genius, the one
question that eludes an answer is the name of Ludo’s father.
Sibylla believes Kurosawa’s genius that manifests in The
Seven Samurai obliquely provides the male role models that
Ludo’s genetic father can never be. She obstinately refuses to
be drawn on the question of paternal identity, believing the
samurais are the perfect substitute.
thinks differently, and eventually inspired by Kurosawa’s
creation sets off on a search for his lost father. It’s a
search that leads him beyond the certainties of acquired
knowledge into the complex and messy world of adults.
The film plays
as a bizarre running backdrop to his childhood. Ludo’s search
for his real father eventually ends in disappointment, but he
does find out more than he needs about his mother’s life.
Open to any
page in The Last Samurai and, three times out of five,
you’re likely to be confronted by brief snippets of Greek or
Japanese, complete with their English equivalents. DeWitt’s
characters are caught up in several translation projects.
characters, DeWitt displays her intellectual and artistic gifts
with ease. One can easily get carried away with the tempo of her
prose, which alternates between short, sharp sentences and
sprawling passages that leave you gasping for breath. At its
best, the writing is playful and engaging. DeWitt clearly is a
writer who believes in taking chances. Her wit and intelligence
provide sparkle as well as hold promise.
Kurosawa and Ludo’s frustrating search for a perfect father, The
Last Samurai proves to be a book that’s about
possibilities, about achieving one’s potential. It’s an
exuberant call to go out and see what you can find in this
incredible world rather than settling for what you are given.
Reading this book makes you wonder how many interesting people,
how many "great minds", you walk past each day without
even stirring to take notice.
About the author of the book:
Daughter of an American diplomat, Helen DeWitt was born in the
USA, but grew up in Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador. She
dropped out of college to read Proust while working as a
chambermaid, and then went to Brasenose College, Oxford, where
she read Greek and Latin literature and gained a doctorate. She
now lives in London for reasons unknown. The Last Samurai
is her first completed novel after fifty attempts.