The Last Samurai (novel)
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|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|LC Class||PS3554.E92945 S48 2000|
The Last Samurai (2000) was the first novel by American writer Helen DeWitt.
The Last Samurai is about the relationship between a young boy, Ludo, and his mother, Sibylla. Sibylla, a single mother, brings Ludo up somewhat unusually; he starts reading at two, reading Homer in the original Greek at three, and goes on to Hebrew, Japanese, Old Norse, Inuit, and advanced mathematics. To stand in for a male influence in his upbringing, Sibylla plays him Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, which he comes to know by heart. Ludo is a child prodigy, whose combination of genius and naïveté guide him in a search for his missing father, whose identity Sibylla refuses to disclose — a search that has some peculiar byways and unexpected consequences.
The novel starts with a prologue which outlines the early life of Sibylla, the main character's mother. It brings up the theme of the importance of education, a theme which runs throughout the entirety of the novel.
The beginning of the novel is told in the perspective of Sibylla, as she gives the reader background as to her relations with Ludo's father. The novel then progresses to see Ludo at ages three and then six. During these scenes the reader watches Sibylla teach her son a variety of languages, including Greek, Hebrew, then Japanese and even Inuit. The young single mother also teaches her son complicated mathematics, which he masters with ease.
The next portion of the novel describes Ludo at age eleven, with no formal schooling and the only social interaction he has coming from his participation in a Judo class which his mother has enrolled him in. For the first parts of the novel, the reader only sees the interactions between Ludo and his mother, however, Sibylla becomes increasingly absent during the second half of the novel. Instead, Ludo replaces her involvement in his life with the pursuit of various potential fathers. Ludo interacts with several adult male geniuses, testing each to see if they would make a good candidate to be his father. When he finally does meet his father, he deems him undeserving of having Ludo due to his lack of intellect.
Throughout the novel the reader sees Ludo mature and grow up, switching roles with his mother and becoming more of her parental figure than vice versa. In the end, the boy has matured into a genius who has learned much about both life and death.
One of the major aspects of the novel is the character development, especially Ludo's. In the beginning of the novel, Ludo is very dependent on Sibylla. As a single parent, Sibylla is the one who decides how she should raise Ludo, deciding that having Ludo study so many different academic works was what was best. However, Ludo eventually took steps to become more independent. For instance, when Sibylla refuses to tell Ludo who his father is, Ludo takes steps to find out, searching through his mother's belongings to find the true identity of his father. When Ludo discovers who his father is, he seeks his father by himself. After meeting his true father, Ludo decides to make decisions for himself, developing an ambition to become the best by searching for the "best" father. Ludo's maturity is shown through his independence in journeying for different fathers. Sibylla's absence in Ludo's search for a father further highlights the growth of Ludo, who had become more mature despite being only eleven years old. Another development seen in Ludo is his change in mentality. Due to Sibylla's influence, Ludo had a narrow mindset, focusing solely on academics. He only thought of academics to help his image, having large ambitions to become the best, such as wanting to go to Cambridge at the age of eleven. In addition, he only wanted a father that was extremely prodigious because it would help him. However, during his journey to find his father, he starts to lessen his expectations. In the end of the novel, he manages to develop a connection with Yamamoto, not for the fact that he was extremely talented but because he was the one to whom Ludo could have a logical connection through conversation.
Throughout the entire novel the reader sees Sibylla and Ludo watch the film, Seven Samurai. The film is regarded by Sibylla as a masterpiece and she consistently relies on the film to be a source of escape for herself. She uses the film to give Ludo potential male role models, as he is lacking fathers, uncles etc. in his life. Throughout the novel, references are made to the film and Ludo compares the males he comes into contact with to the samurai, testing the mettle of each one.
The potential fathers
Each of the potential fathers which Ludo tests teach him a different lesson. Though he is without a constant male influence in his life, Ludo goes out into the world to find one for himself. His progression into adulthood is visible in his dealings with each of them. The potential fathers include: 1. Hugh Carey 2. George Sorabji 3. Watkins 4. Mustafa Szegti 5. Red Devlin 6. Kenzo Yamamoto
Parallels can be seen between the film in that Ludo would make up the seventh samurai, as there are six men described above.
Ludo seeks out these potential fathers in search of a strong, intelligent man who can guide him towards success in life. However, during his interaction with each potential father, Ludo realizes they have nothing to offer him and he eventually abandons them all. To start, he chooses Hugh Carey (HC) because he was “a man to challenge, a man who knew 50 languages, a man who faced death a hundred times” and it seemed as if “HE could fight with swords” (349). However, Ludo soon becomes conscious of the fact that Hugh Carey is not as intelligent as he once seemed. HC proudly claims that he “knew the whole times table up to 12 by the time [he] was 6” but Ludo is far from impressed for he had “known the times table up to 20 by the time [he] was 4” (352). Similarly, Ludo initially seeks out Sorabji because “all the evidence suggested that Sorabji was not only brilliant but a genuine hero” (403). Just as Ludo doubts HC’s ability to improve his life, Ludo worries that Sorabji wouldn’t be able to help him through hard situations. Ludo says, “I was beginning to think if we fought with real swords I would kill him” (403). Again, when Ludo first seeks out Red Devlin, he admired Devlin for his brave escape after being kidnapped in Azerbaijan for reporting human atrocities. Yet, after watching Devlin commit suicide to escape the troubles in his life, Ludo realizes that he is not as brave as he once thought. In the end, Ludo ends up abandoning all of his potential fathers, as he realizes that he is better off without them.
Helen Dewitt plays with the language used and the visual effects created by the structure of the letters, making the novel feel more conversational rather than formal, and thus forcing the readers to sense with Sibylla’s perception and feelings. The story starts out with Sibylla trying to decipher a line of German, which she translates to “It is truly something and something which the something with the something of this something....”(17). Repetition is a common literary device used to put emphasis on phrases and/or ideas; however, since Dewitt repeats the word “something” over and over again, specifically eleven times, this sentence feels rather unconventional. Repetition is a common literary device used to put emphasis on phrases and/or ideas; however, since Dewitt repeats the word “something” over and over again, specifically eleven times, this sentence feels rather unconventional. It still serves the original purpose: it emphasizes that Sibylla has forgotten much of German; but this replacing words one doesn’t recognize with “something”s is much more relatable than more formal novels. This repetition also presents itself in Ludo and Sibylla’s conversations: “Why are they fighting?WHY ARE THEY FIGHTING? WHY ARE THEY FIGHTING?”(26-7). This emphasizes that Ludo is a very curious child and often won’t stop asking until he gets an answer. In fact, Dewitt even uses capitalization to convey an eager tone. It’s as if Ludo is screaming at the readers for the answer, and compels the readers to imagine themselves in Sibylla’s position. In the same conversation, a very interesting repetition appears:”I know that” versus two lines later”I know THAT” and versus a few lines after that, “I KNOW that”(27). The phrases are identical, yet the capitalization emphasis puts different tones on them. They are all basically Ludo asking Sibylla for a different answer, yet the first one is just informative, second one is slightly impolite, and the third one conveys annoyance. In a later conversation, Dewitt adds another element to this play on language-the visual effects of the structure of words on a page. It is Ludo again asking his questions: “HOW MUCH MORE? HOW MUCH MORE? HOW, MUCH, MORE?”(34), and Dewitt this time uses italicization, bolding, commas, and a font size change, in addition to the all caps. First of, these three lines are right there when one turns the page from the previous one, and it creates a quite shocking impression. This shocking effect again relates to how Sibylla at the moment must’ve felt. Second, it emphasis even further how crazy and obsessive Ludo can get if he doesn’t get his questions answers, thus illustrating his curiosity at such a young age. Dewitt’s play with language and the visual structure of the words is definitely different from a typical novel with typical literary devices such as metaphors and such. Through using more relatable language and creating shocking images, she is able to not only do what typical literary devices could do, which is emphasis the important ideas, but also force the readers to experience with Sibylla and follow her feelings through the story. Her style of writing is very unconventional, yet very interesting, as new surprises, just like the huge “HOW, MUCH, MORE?”, unravel, as readers follow through the book.
From the beginning of the novel, young Ludo has shown extreme interest in learning how to read and comprehend various languages from his mother, who seems to be capable of understanding a vast number of tongues. When introducing the concept of Penguin Japanese as what English translators translate into, the narrator breaks down the sentence “Tada kassen ni wa zuibun deta ga, tada” into its main constituents and explains each part in English (32). The most direct way to incorporate a language other than English would be to either simply present it in the foreign form and leave the reader in the unknown or translate it completely into English with the implication that it is meant to be in Japanese and move on. While it may seem redundant or unnecessary, DeWitt deviates from this by breaking down the phrase in order to provide the reader an opportunity to learn bits of the languages alongside Ludo while reading the book. On its own, this book teaches little more than a few words in different languages but what is important is that it elevates the reading experience into a learning one in a way that would not have happened otherwise. This idea is extended in Sibylla’s belief that being restricted to only one language in works of literature limits the potential of what can be conveyed. She hopes to see languages being used in the same way colors or notes are merged so that “gradually [writers] would approach the level of the other branches of the arts which are so much further developed,” implying that there is much potential in intermixing several languages that has yet to be explored (63). While it's common for an array of colors and notes to be used in paintings and music, most pieces of writing use single language. The obvious choice of color for a sun would be yellow, but often artists move beyond that in works of art. Just as meaning and depth may be enhanced by deviation from the expected colors in a work of art, shifting between languages may unlock a whole new world of possibilities. By incorporating several languages within the book, DeWitt forms The Last Samurai into an attempt towards this so-called higher level of artistic development. This distinct presentation of language challenges the reader to approach this book differently by seizing each opportunity the author presents to learn something new.
Samurai and Swords
Ludo frequently revisits the image of a “real samurai,” often alluding to particular scenes from the Japanese movie, Seven Samurai. Such allusions lead one to inquire about Ludo’s definition of what it means to be a “real samurai,” and illustrate a possible parallel between Ludo and the Japanese warrior. Examining the context in which Ludo brings up this image, one can infer that Ludo is using a metaphor: swords represent truth and intelligence. After lying to his potential father figures that he is their son, Ludo always says, “I was glad we weren’t fighting with real swords. If we had been this might have killed me." The “swords” in this context can be read to say “truths.” Another instance that illustrates the metaphor is when Ludo suggests, “The master swordsman isn’t interested in killing people. He only wants to perfect his art." In this passage, Ludo draws a parallel between swordsmen (samurai) and geniuses, suggesting that real geniuses people do not acquire knowledge to flaunt their knowledge but rather learns for the sake of learning, just as samurai do not practice their swords to kill but only to pursuit them as a sort of aesthetic. Ludo also utilizes his knowledge as a weapon that can effectively be used to defend oneself if used carefully and appropriately.
The Last Samurai depicts characters in a unique way, by always describing both the character’s superior abilities and faults. Ludo is portrayed as a boy who could master multiple languages and rapidly learn many scientific tasks, but is also portrayed as a socially deficient boy who never interacted with his contemporaries. Meanwhile, Sibylla is portrayed as a genius in language arts but shown as incapable of parenting a child properly; to an extent that she thinks that movie characters can replace a father. Even the side characters are described in this way. For example, Sorabji is a Nobel-prize winner and a philanthropist, but is also a man who cannot control his anger.
This dual portrayal of characters focuses on an important issue, mainly the following question: “What is considered intelligent in a society?” None of these characters are perfect as they have significant flaws. While some of these characters, such as Sibylla and Sorabji, are considered as the genius by a society despite their flaws, Ludo is only seen by public as a socially deprived person despite his superior intellect, even to the point where even Sibylla describes his intellect as merely memorizing simple facts. These issues are continuously expressed in the novel.
Although hidden under rationality of narrators and informative writing style of the writer, The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt thoroughly explores human desire and different kinds of it. There are two different kinds of desire in the novel in which each character indulges: ambition towards vertical achievement, and longing for horizontal expansion in experience. Desire that is vertical in nature can be seen in people who constantly try to be the best in an area. On the other hand, desire that is horizontal is seen in people who enjoys to contemplate their choice, to wonder the life they couldn’t live, and to expand their experience. They would often throw questions such as: ‘What would my life have looked like if I had made a different decision at that moment?’ They always open the possibility of living a different life and long to experience the other side of their life. Imagining these two distinctive aspirations in terms of direction, one runs vertically forward and the other looks around to expand their experience.
Linda, the mother of Sibylla, indulges in the first type of desire. Her goal is to attend the best music school and become the best of the area, if she is going to become a musician at all. On the other hand, Sibylla’s father, the atheist as the novel refers him, obsesses over the life he was about to, but couldn’t live. He believes his life is ruined by one decision that his dad and he made: going to a seminary instead of Harvard University. Due to this experience, he becomes obsessive over the concept of chance. These two aspirations varying in direction are introduced in the prelude and interlude of the novel, respectively. Also throughout the novel readers witness that the directional quality of Ludo’s desire, reason for learning, transforms from a vertical ambition to the horizontal expansion of experience.
Awards and nominations
The novel was shortlisted for the 2002 International Dublin Literary Award and the Los Angeles Times’ 2001 Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and was longlisted for the 2001 Orange Prize for Fiction (it made the men's jury's controversial shortlist). In 2018 Vulture magazine named the novel as the best of the century.
- Gibbons, Fiachra (May 22, 2001), Books, London: The Guardian.
- DeWitt, Helen. The Last Samurai (Chatto and Windus, 2000: ISBN 0-7011-6956-7; paperback Vintage, 2001: ISBN 0-09-928462-6)
- Orange Prize for Fiction, 2001.
- Festival of Books, Los Angeles Times, 2001.
- 2002 Shortlist, International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award, 2002, archived from the original on 2014-07-29.
- Book review, The New York Times, October 15, 2000.