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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch


In this issue:


Eileen Frost reviews The Last Samurai, an often humorous account of a bright woman's attempt at survival in contemporary London and one gifted child's early education.

And Consider This:

Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferriss' book, Footnotes on Shoes, presents fourteen essays examining the shoe as a cinematic accessory to a politically powerful tool.

Rose Mula reviews My Brush with Life and Art by Kate Pedigo with Ernie Loewy. Kate depicts life in a simpler, more innocent age



The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

Talk Miramax Books/Hyperion 530 pp.


If you have ever puzzled over the regrettable gaps in what you know about your parents, curiosity will drive you quickly through this intriguing voyage of discovery. The Last Samurai—set not in Japan but in England—describes a boy's attempts to identify his father. It also is an insightful story about one gifted child's early education, as well as an often humorous account of a bright woman's attempt at survival in contemporary London. There are occasional insertions of Japanese or other languages, primarily to illustrate what the hero is learning, but one can skip past them without harm to understanding.

This first novel by Helen DeWitt is a delightfully entertaining story from beginning to end. It centers on Sybilla, an intelligent, fiercely independent single mother, and her son, Ludo, a precocious little boy. Ludo soaks up reading and his mother teaches him Greek, Hebrew, Japanese, Old Norse before the age of six. In no way priggish, this child remains appealingly child-like despite a prodigious ability to focus for hours on math problems. He is especially enchanted by the challenge of learning the characters representing words in non-European languages. Sybilla, meanwhile, earns their small living by word processing at home old issues of specialty magazines like Advanced Angling or The Country Poodle ("Clipping the Country Poodle-Secrets of Success").

The story of Ludo's education takes up the first half of the book. Sybilla is an astute, innovative teacher who respects the gifted little person with whom she is entrusted. To teach him Japanese, she knows "small children like matching things up," so she lets Ludo choose a few new Japanese characters each day to match up with words in his book and highlight what he has found. If she finds herself scolding, she says "the Alien" has taken over, an Alien who has temporarily blocked the learning process. Riding the Circle Line, she endures the comments of well-meaning strangers about Ludo: "Isn't he rather young wouldn't he really be better off playing football I think you are making a terrible mistake."

At age six Sybilla take Ludo to enroll in school. Ludo is anxious about whether he is already behind, but the teacher says that "usually people would not study Arabic or Hebrew or Japanese at school at all and they would usually not start French or Greek or Latin until the age of twelve or so! I was absolutely amazed!!!" When Ludo refers to J.S. Mill's having begun Greek at age three (Ludo always thinks he himself must therefore be behind), he is aghast that the teacher doesn't even know who J.S. Mill was:

'Oh, a Victorian,' commented Ms. Thompson. 'Well, you know the Victorians placed a much greater value on facts for their own sake than we do. Now we're more interested in what someone can do with what they know. One of the most important parts of school is just learning to work as a member of a group.'

'Yes,' I replied, 'but Mr. Mill said he was never allowed merely to fill his head with unexamined facts. He was always forced to examine arguments and to justify his positions.'

After a week in this school, a worried Sybilla withdraws her son, whose presence has been declared bad for the morale of the other, slower children. As they walk home, they have a chance encounter with a billboard advertising a Judo School, and Ludo agrees that he would like to try learning judo. Sybilla is relieved because judo school "solves one thing. You will meet other children your age in a structured and moral environment and strive to achieve satori. It would [then] not be actually wrong for me to teach you at home."

When she is not word processing, or taking Ludo on the Underground to free museums around London, or teaching Ludo, Sybilla watches a videotape of The Seven Samurai, a masterpiece by Japanese film giant Akira Kurosawa. She introduces Ludo to the individual characters and discusses with him all the whys and wherefores of the plot. "I am providing my fatherless uncle-less boy with eight male role models"

The only subject never explored in this household is the identity of Ludo's actual genetic father. Sybilla's pregnancy resulted from a single drunken encounter with a noted travel writer when she was a student at Oxford. This writer's mind turned out to be so trite and insensitive, however, that Sybilla does not want him in her son's life. When Ludo approaches age six, his mother promises him that on his birthday, as a special treat, he may ask as many questions as he wants. He begins to ask, "Who was my father?" but she "doesn't want to talk about it". Another day, "After we had thoroughly mastered our characters I asked Sybilla where she met my father." And the next day, "what letter does his first name start with?" Again, "I have been trying all week to find out my father's name." Despite his persistence, Sybilla will not answer him.

The second half of this novel comprises eleven-year-old Ludo's single-minded quest to find his father. After initially acquiring some clues from a packet of papers in his mother's room, he makes forays all over London to track down his elusive prey. He communicates first with the travel writer, his actual genetic father, after carefully preparing by reading all his books. Disillusioned by that encounter, he inveigles meetings with six other possible candidates whose fascinating stories have been told him by his mother. Ludo learns about the lives of an explorer/adventurer, a Nobel-winning astronomer, a professional bridge player, an action artist, a foreign correspondent, and a Japanese musician. Each man is intriguing, eccentric, and potentially, a hero for Ludo, but each is human and flawed in different ways. Ludo's idealism eventually is tempered by encounters with real people in real life, but he does not become cynical. After contriving to meet all seven men, Ludo concludes, "I had started by picking the wrong kind of father, but now I knew what to look for I could build up a collection of 20 or so."

The Last Samurai was nominated for the 2001 Orange Prize.

The Orange Prize for Fiction is the UK's largest annual literary award for a single novel. The prize was the brainchild of a group of senior women in the British publishing industry, concerned about why so few novels by women were making it to the shortlists of the established literary awards. Its aim is to celebrate novels of excellence by women writers.

About the Author

Helen DeWitt was born in 1957 in Takoma Park, Maryland. She grew up mainly in South America. She started a degree at Smith College in 1975 and then went on to Oxford to study classics and philosophy. After a year at Somerville College, Oxford, she decided in 1989 to give up academic life. She now lives in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, England.

Daughter of an army surgeon, Eileen Frost grew up in libraries on military bases from coast to coast and beyond. A Senate staff member for five years after college, she spent many rewarding hours in the Library of Congress. She then spent a year in Europe, and after an interlude enjoying her small children, Eileen ran a catering business, became a librarian, and has worked at an independent school in North Carolina since 1984. Ms. Frost has two daughters, both avid readers. For questions, comments and suggestions, email Eileen Frost.


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©2001 Eileen Frost for SeniorWomenWeb

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