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Called “remarkable” (The Wall Street Journal) and “an ambitious, colossal debut novel” (Publishers Weekly), Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai is back in print at last
Helen DeWitt’s 2000 debut, The Last Samurai, was “destined to become a cult classic” (Miramax). The enterprising publisher sold the rights in twenty countries, so “Why not just, ‘destined to become a classic?’” (Garth Risk Hallberg) And why must cultists tell the uninitiated it has nothing to do with Tom Cruise?
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.
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Helen DeWitt's extraordinary debut, The Last Samurai, centers on the relationship between Sibylla, a single mother of precocious and rigorous intelligence, and her son, who, owing to his mother's singular attitude to education, develops into a prodigy of learning. Ludo reads Homer in the original Greek at 4 before moving on to Hebrew, Japanese, Old Norse, and Inuit; studying advanced mathematical techniques (Fourier analysis and Laplace transformations); and, as the title hints, endlessly watching and analyzing Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece, The Seven Samurai. But the one question that eludes an answer is that of the name of his father: Sibylla believes the film obliquely provides the male role models that Ludo's genetic father cannot, and refuses to be drawn on the question of paternal identity. The child thinks differently, however, and eventually sets out on a search, one that leads him beyond the certainties of acquired knowledge into the complex and messy world of adults.
The novel draws on themes topical and perennial--the hothousing of children, the familiar literary trope of the quest for the (absent) father--and as such, divides itself into two halves: the first describes Ludo's education, the second follows him in his search for his father and father figures. The first stresses a sacred, Apollonian pursuit of logic, precise (if wayward) erudition, and the erratic and endlessly fascinating architecture of languages, while the second moves this knowledge into the world of emotion, human ambitions, and their attendant frustrations and failures.
The Last Samurai is about the pleasure of ideas, the rich varieties of human thought, the possibilities that life offers us, and, ultimately, the balance between the structures we make of the world and the chaos that it proffers in return. Stylistically, the novel mirrors this ambivalence: DeWitt's remarkable prose follows the shifts and breaks of human consciousness and memory, capturing the intrusions of unspoken thought that punctuate conversation while providing tantalizing disquisitions on, for example, Japanese grammar or the physics of aerodynamics. It is remarkable, profound, and often very funny. Arigato DeWitt-sensei. --Burhan TufailFrom the Inside Flap:
This is the story of a single mother, Sibylla, who comes from a long line of frustrated talents, and her son Ludo, who just happens to be a genius. Obsessed with the film The Seventh Samurai, she makes it a running backdrop to Ludo's childhood. At five Ludo learns ancient Greek, reading Homer as they travel round and round on the London Underground, teaches himself Hebrew, Arabic, Inuit, probability theory, astronomy, and is moving on to Japanese when he decides to embark on the search for his father?preferably the perfect father in the heroic mould, or at the very least, one with samurai virtues. He is bound for disappointment, and to find out more than he needs about his mother's shaky past. And at the heart of this completely delightful, captivating novel is the boy's changing relationship with his mother?contradictory, touching, and tender.
Full of linguistic pyrotechnics, fabulous learning, philosophy, science, and the workings of a brilliant mind, this is a must-read novel for everyone who relishes language, extravagant ideas, game theory, science, parenthood, not to mention Kurosawa's cinematic masterpiece.
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