The Last Samurai by Helen Dewitt is a metafiction novel told in the first person through the voice of a single mother and her prodigy son, gifted with an insatiable curiosity for languages among other things. There are so many threads in this novel that I was worried they would still be dangling loosely at the end but, in spite of its enigmatic ending, all of the narrative is so tightly woven that I am blown away. (And let's be honest, shall we? Those of you who follow my reviews are fully aware of the fact that I prefer an ending with no neat closure than I do one that forces a happy ending down my throat.)
All reviews are subjective, obviously. Nevertheless, I wish to approach this novel in a manner that will attempt to do full justice to the text. The truth is, I cannot possibly hope to succeed.
One: The Self as Writer
I could never have written this book. I doubt many of us could. Thank goodness Dewitt has already written it because now the pressure is off the rest of us. This novel weaves together literature and languages, from The Odyssey to the Old Testament, from Mozart to Kurosawa to Lord Leighton, and throughout The Seven Samurai and so much more. The story unfolds slowly but is compelling nonetheless. Just when you think, “Why is this here? Why didn’t Dewitt edit this out? I don’t understand.” The story continues and you say, “Oh wait. Now I get it. Wow.” The things that seem redundant serve a purpose, the way a childhood memory plays itself over and over again, roots digging deep within the psyche. Dewitt isn’t writing an easy novel and her characters are complex, inspiring both compassion and criticism. I am in awe and grateful I never aspired to such greatness as is contained within the pages of this amazing book.
Two: The Self as Daughter Raised by a Single Mother and De Facto Single Mother Herself
Sibylla is a single mother raising a remarkably brilliant child whom she calls Ludo. It’s hard to say she is a good mother but she is without a doubt a well-meaning one. Homeschoolers will delight in her choice to educate her son who, by the time he is six, is multilingual and knows mathematics beyond anything his peers are doing in the classroom. But to praise her with excess ease is impossible. She watches The Seven Samurai every day for weeks, months, and even years. When her son reasonably asks to know more about her father, she refuses to give him a simple answer, demanding that he prove a readiness to know the truth. When he is old enough, naturally Ludo seeks his father with whatever information he can scrounge up. I tend to avoid any television shows that include some sentimental crap in which children are reunited with their long lost fathers, whether it’s one of those (wretched) daytime talk shows or a sitcom that wants to use emotional manipulation to teach a moral lesson, I typically find this programs insulting and disingenuous. I did not feel this way for even one moment as Ludo strives to find his own answers. I hesitated to hope and also didn’t want to despair that he would succeed.
Three: The Self as Literature Lover
This book is such a treasure and the type of book that many people will hate the moment they try to begin it. If you need a clearly linear novel and if you need quotation marks to distinguish dialogue then this novel will be distasteful. I am of a postmodern bent when it comes to such things and respect novels that can do these things and do them effectively. I do not deny that in the hands of unskilled writers and editors, the end result is a mess but Dewitt is far from unskilled. She is a master, the type of talent who makes the complex seem so easy, so very easy. The layering is glorious with so many surprises at each turn of the page that I found myself not wanting to read too quickly when I came close to the end.
Four: The Remembered Self
At one point, Dewitt makes reference to Carl Friedrich Gauss and a possibly apocryphal story of his adding a sequential series of integers using a simple formula. One time my step-father (although he and my mother were not yet married), while we were driving somewhere, asked myself and his daughter “What is the sum of all the numbers from 1 to 100?” I pondered it for a few moments and then said, “5050.” When he asked me how I had come up with the solution, I explained that I realized 1 + 99 equals 100 and 2 + 98 equals 100 so it was simply a matter of knowing that I would add them all and have to add 50 more. This is not quite the same as what the novel says one should do but the end result is correct. (You would multiply 100 by 101 and then divide the product by 2.) That I had done this in my head surprised him. That I out thought my (future) step-sister was only due to my being seven years her senior. It wasn’t all that impressive but I can’t help wondering if maybe some of my intellect did not go overlooked. I know I found school dreadfully dull although I liked interacting with other people. I probably still favor a more social work environment than one in which I am expected to fulfill my role without thought, moving by rote from task to task. And perhaps that is part of what I loved about this book because there is nothing rote about it. I don’t expect to read another book quite like this one, with its dark humor (There is a strange taboo in our society against matricide. (253)) and curious observations (The fact is that most people are illogical out of habit rather than stupidity; they could probably be rational quite easily if they were properly taught. (363-364)), I found myself chuckling, even guffawing, and I don’t frequently find books that give me so much pleasure.
Five: The Self as Reviewer
I said at the start that I doubted I’d be able to write a review that would adequately reflect what a remarkable book this is. I could only try to share how I think I approached reading this novel from a variety of perspectives to give some idea of why I appreciated it so very much. I couldn’t possibly prepare myself for the story because even when I thought what could happen, something else entirely different would happen and it never seemed wrong, contrived, manipulative, or any of the things that I usually feel for novels that deeply disappointing. This is, needless to say, a thinking person’s book and not an easy escapist bit of fluff. There is nothing wrong with escapist fluff.