Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

A prodigy and his mother try to live their life according to Kurasawa’s masterpiece

Sibylla, a difficult person, an academic, gets pregnant during a one night stand with a celebrity author. Disgusted at his bourgeois sensibilities, she does not tell him of the child. Little Ludo turns out to be a genius, reading Homer at age 4 and pestering his mother for help with the vocabulary. The little family is poor, their only income coming from the transcriptions she types of such periodicals as “Carp World” and “Advanced Angling.” That means that sometimes in the winter the two must ride the Circle Line all day to keep warm. Ludo begins to get curious about the identity of his father. The first half of the book is Ludo’s education; the second half is his search for a father figure.

This is almost like two books in one. The first is the compelling story of a young mother cursed/gifted with a precocious toddler. Maternal love and the bright eyes of the child. The second half is the story of the 11 year old searching for his father. This section lacks the comical claustrophobia of the first, and is presented as a series of fabulous anecdotes, stories of heroes, enjoyable to read but it pulled the reader away from the intensity of the novel. Also, the mother, who is the emotional center of the first half, pretty much drops out of sight.

My expectations were too high, I think, based upon what I had heard about how amazing this novel was. This was a perfectly enjoyable book but it could have used some cutting. Early on I got it – the two of them are SMART. The novel also served as educational device, introducing the reader to elementary Greek and other languages. Also, it was interesting to see all the different structures one could build a novel around: Verb declensions, a movie, and dusty old periodicals. I enjoyed the prose in the first half too: a mash up of dialogue, classical excerpts and scenes from the movie.

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