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Book review: The Last Samurai, by Helen DeWitt

Reviewed by Sacha Arnold:

Helen DeWitt’s tornadic debut novel is back in print, now with a katana-free cover much less likely to suggest it’s the source text for the Tom Cruise movie with the same title. (It’s not.) The title does allude to the book’s own source text Seven Samurai, which mother Sibylla screens and rescreens for son Ludo instead of Sesame Street. The film is not merely a substitute for educational TV but also for an absent father, whose identity Sibylla refuses to disclose.

Ludo, however, is smarter than the average boy. Literate in numerous languages before even beginning school, he manages (age 11) to determine his own paternity and find it a disappointment. His next step is to venture into the wider world and audition more suitable candidates for fatherhood with Kurosawa’s film as his guide.

The plot sketch above spoils almost nothing. What’s unique about The Last Samurai is how DeWitt forces the reading experience to mimic the processes of intellectual formation that shape mother, son, and fathers. Greek and Japanese pedagogical material, movie dialogue, and pages of shown mathematical work intrude, making learning visceral by actually making the reader learn. (DeWitt and Ilya Gridneff’s quasi-published novel Your Name Here is even more forceful, embedding similar elements in long stretches of second person text.)

Beyond being a showcase for the building blocks of knowledge, The Last Samurai is also a meditation about the value of knowledge and its pursuit in a world that only fitfully values it. DeWitt stresses Sibylla and Ludo’s isolation and lack of means, and at many points questions whether they can even succeed given the hideous power of ignorance. The answers aren’t in the text, but the book compels intelligent readers to construct their own.

Sacha Arnold is a contributor to The Believer, io9, Big Bell, and other publications. He lives in Oakland.