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Rediscovering a masterpiece: Helen DeWitt’s Last Samurai

Mon, 06/13/2016 - 4:40pm by bengelty

Those looking for Tom Cruise to don ceremonial armor and gallivant around 19th century Japan might be better off checking out the completely unrelated movie that unfortunately shares its name with Helen DeWitt’s remarkable debut novel. If instead you’re looking for a highly original yet compulsively readable book about language, art, and what it means to be intelligent, look no further.

Originally published in 2000, The Last Samurai concerns single mother Sibylla, a displaced American living in London, and her precocious savant of a son, Ludo. When, at the age of four, Ludo shows a voracious appetite for learning, Sibylla starts him out with a few passages from Homer’s Iliad (in the original Greek). Before long, Ludo is carrying around a backpack filled with everything from The Odyssey and The Metamorphosis to The House at Pooh Corner (he’s still a kid, after all).

As a stand in for Ludo’s biological father, Sibylla naturally turns to her favorite film, Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai), which she and her son watch hundreds of times in order to impart the virtues of respect, honor, and discipline. Not surprisingly, this proves to be lacking for the ever-curious Ludo, who embarks on a quest of his own to find his real father in light of the wisdom conveyed within the film.

If you aren’t afraid of being outsmarted by a five-year-old; this book is for you. If you believe boredom to be “a fate worse than death”; this book is for you. And if you would simply rather watch a samurai movie; at least give some Kurosawa a try.

Recently republished by New Directions, The Last Samurai can also be requested using the MeLCat database.


What a great review! Definitely adding this to my to-read list.

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