The Tribune - Spectrum

, June 23, 2002

The genesis of a genius
Deepika Gurdev

The Last Samurai
by Helen DeWitt. Vintage. Pages 482. Singapore $20.

IF like me, you are the kind of person who does most of her reading on a bus or train, I’d suggest don’t pick this one up. I committed the mortal sin of doing just that, ended up missing not only my bus stop but also landed on a one-way street and finished the first chapter only to find myself battling the sweltering Singapore sun to head back on track.

It was worth the effort though. For this delightful 482 page wonder is worth every bit of that cent or the paisa that you choose to invest in it. The main character in this debut novel which took close to 14 years in the making (there’s hope for all you aspiring writers out there) is a child genius who goes by the rather delightful name of Ludo.

Helen DeWitt’s extraordinary debut novel, The Last Samurai, centres on the relationship between Ludo and Sibylla, a single mother of precocious and rigorous intelligence, who came to Oxford to study languages but eventually drops out by virtue of her sheer genius. Through her singular attitude to education, Ludo develops into something of a child prodigy.


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 Samurai.

Just sample his diary entry:

"Of course 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 something like:


Well, with 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.

The first 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.

Ludo, however, 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.

Like her 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.

And beyond 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.