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The Last Samurai

The Last Samurai - Helen DeWitt Speaking of French a funny thing happened today on the Tube. A lady got into an argument with Sibylla who said let's take the example of two men who are about to be ritually disembowelled. A dies at time t of heart failure and B dies at time t+n from having someone plunge a stone knife into his chest and rip the beating heart out with his bare hands. I think we would agree that B's life was not improved by the additional n minutes in which the stone knife was plunged into his and the lady said pas devant les enfants. I said parlez-vous français. The lady looked very surprised. Sibylla said would you be more comfortable if we continued the discussion in Bengali? The lady said pardon? I've never read anything quite like this before. You don't expect a novel to teach you to read Greek do you? This one does, and some Japanese too. Nor can there be very many books with a chapter called: 999999^7=999993000020999965000034999979000006999999 Like the author, Sibylla is an American who came to Oxford to study languages. (Helen DeWitt dropped out of college to read Proust while working as a chambermaid before attending Brasenose College, Oxford, where she read Greek and Latin literature and gained a doctorate. The Last Samurai was her first completed novel after fifty attempts.) She, Sibylla that is, is also a single mother struggling to raise a child prodigy on her own - choosing to provide her son Ludo with male role models by showing him Akira Kurosawa's classic Japanese film The Seven Samurai over and over and over again. Ludo learns to read Homer IN GREEK by the age of four, is keeping a diary by the age of 5¾ and learning Japanese by his sixth birthday. Oh, and he wants to know who his father is... Here are two extracts from Ludo's diary:- 1 April. Sibylla still did not feel like cleaning a chicken today. I asked if my father's name was Ludo and she said no. I asked if it was David and she said no. I asked if it was Steven and she said no. I said well what is it then and she said Rumpelstiltskin. Then she suggested we go out to Ohio Fried Chicken. I asked if it was really Rumpelstiltskin and she said no. 14 September, 1993 Today was my second day at school. We started the day off by painting pictures of animals. I did a picture of a tarantula with 88 legs. Miss Lewis asked what it was and I explained that it was an oktokaiogdoekontapodal tarantula. I don't know if there are any real ones, I think this is just something I made up. Then I did another picture. This one was of a heptakaiogdoekontapodal tarantula because the first one got in a fight and lost a leg. As you can see there are some spectacular linguistic pyrotechnics in this astonishing, baffling and, at times, spellbinding book as it flackers along like a butterfly in the dazzling sunshine. It is about possibilities. It is about achieving potential. Learning. It is an exuberant call to go out and see what you can find in this incredible world rather than settling for what you are given. As he gets older, Ludo tracks down various men he thinks might be good candidates to be his father. Along the way there are some fabulous digressions. Tales of exceptional people setting out to explore the world, wonderful short stories woven in - refugees from those other forty-nine unfinished novels perhaps? If you like watching Kurosawa's film The Seven Samurai over and over again, or if you're a single mother who speaks Japanese and Greek and is trying to bring up a gifted child, then this is the book for you. It's a pity you won't have the time to read it of course. If you're not a single mother who speaks Japanese and Greek and who is trying to bring up a gifted child, then read it anyway. I think it is dazzling in every way. {Adapted from a review I posted on dooyoo.co.uk in August 2001}