Saturday, October 29, 2016

Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai (2000)

Wow. The Last Samurai. By law, I must clarify that this has absolutely nothing to do with any damn Tom Cruise movie you could name--it was originally published well before the movie, in fact. I've read that it was originally to be titled The Seven Samurai, which is appropriate but kinda perverse. Well, at any rate, it is what it is.

And what it is is one of the most astonishing books I've ever read. I feel like a chump for not having done so earlier. Unconscious sexism on my part? Well, maybe, but also entirely conscious "it sounds like this book has a lot to do with The Seven Samurai and the one time I saw that movie I was bored out of my mind; I doan wanna." To clarify, I'm perfectly willing to accept that my subjective impression was objectively wrong regarding the Kurosawa film; I should definitely rewatch it and see what happens. And in any case, even though it does heavily figure into the novel, prior knowledge of it is not required.

The Last Samurai concerns an American woman, Sybilla, living in England. She's incredibly gifted with languages and maths and all kinds of things, but she's doing menial work transcribing old magazines into computers. She has a son, Ludo, from a drunken one-night-stand, whom she is raising to be similarly erudite. And, yes, she's fixated on Kurosawa and the aforementioned film in particular. It's all very wide-ranging stuff, including sundry bits of other languages, particularly Greek and Japanese.

The first forty-odd percent of the book is from Sybilla's perspective: her struggles trying to raise her son when the educational system simply isn't compatible with the ways she is teaching him. She has this idea that he should have a male role-model, but she doesn't want to get his biological father (who doesn't know about him) involved, as she considers him an intellectual lightweight, and thinks he would be harmful for Ludo's development. Instead, she tries to substitute The Seven Samurai in this role.

We jump ahead five years, and the back half of the book is from the eleven-year-old Ludo's perspective. He's managed to figure out his father's identity, but he too rejects him as a suitable father figure. Instead, in a quest modeled after the recruitment scenes from The Seven Samurai, he pursues a variety of potentially-interesting men--alleged adventurers, intellectuals, and humanitarians of various stripes--to see if he can find someone to fulfill this role. Over the course of this, he learns that, in spite of popular perception, such men are not necessarily particularly smart, much less good. And even if they are...well, let's leave it at that.

On one level, this book is about this very thing: interrogating morality and intellect and the crossover between the two. On another level, it's about education: is Ludo actually that smart because he's some sorta genius, or is it just 'cause he's been raised that way? Could anyone (or at least, a lot more people than actually do) be like him, in a world that embraced a kind of potentiality we don't usually even consider?

It's an interesting question--and one that DeWitt articulates in her surprisingly self-aggrandizing afterward:

It's not hard to imagine a world where the effect of the book on what has been a coterie of readers is multiplied to the point where general assumptions about what is possible are changed. We have only to imagine a world where Oprah Winfrey picks up The Last Samurai. Or a world where a bookseller pressesThe Last Samurai upon President Obama.

Uh. Yes. Seriously? Is this a joke? Am I on Candid Camera? Dammit, I do think The Last Samurai is a great book, but now I sorta kinda want to dispute this out of spite. And besides, the picture that the book itself paints is considerably more complicated than the afterward would indicate--whether DeWitt's just not articulating this, or whether this is a matter of the book escaping the author, it's hard to say, but THE FACT IS: Sybilla (and Ludo, but to a lesser extent--he's actually on the whole much less insufferable than child prodigies in fiction normally are) is significantly up herself, as they say. Yes, okay, she's smart, but she's also therefore a considerable snob, and she uses her intellectualism as a distancing tool between herself and and painful or uncomfortable situations. Point being, while the novel is hardly anti-intellectual--quite the contrary--it's also not afraid to subtly poke at the idea that all of this is an unambiguous positive. To be clear, I don't think this is a flaw of the novel at all; it's just that I'm not one hundred percent certain whether DeWitt quite knows the entirety of what she's got.

Still, let's not be petty, because whatever the situation is, The Last Samurai is a hell of a thing. It's long, dense, and complex, but also quite accessible and funny and also morally and intellectually rigorous and I'm going to read everything that DeWitt writes. END OF STORY.


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