Jimmy's Reviews > The Last Samurai

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt
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's review
Jun 08, 10

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction
Read in January, 2010

Kitano Takeshi's recent film, Achilles and the Tortoise (Akiresu to Kame) manipulates Zeno's paradox as moral allegory in order to make a point about the impossible progess of artistic creation in a linear, rational way. In other words, Machisu's character - in early childhood portrayed as a spoiled, overprivileged brat who's artistic inclinations are encouraged to an almost absurd degree - eventually comes to believe that by merely mimicking artistic styles of past masters he can attain artistic acclaim and prominence. Of course his rationalization here is intended to reveal how askew this approach to any type of human accomplishment is. It's a way of thinking that patronizes the meaning behind motivation, thus turning human accomplishment into a sterile, formalized excercise. Really no wonder that toward the end of the film, Machisu's adult character, played by Kitano himself, meets such a tragically psychopathic fate, only redeemed by the tolerant goodwill of others. Basically, Kitano is trying to suggest that Machisu has the wrong idea about what it means to be artistically driven or competitive; he is Achilles.

It isn't far-fetched to think that Dewitt had Zeno's paradox in mind while shaping the character of Ludo in her debut novel The Last Samurai. And had Kitano released his film before it was written, then she would likely have made an allusion to it in the book. But hey, Seven Samurai isn't a bad point of reference either.

The story follows Sibylla (undoubtedly a play on words, refering to syllabary alphabets such as the hiragana, katakana, or kanji used together to create the complex system of the Japanese language) as she raises her three year old, Ludo, to become an erudite child prodigy of sorts. Initially, she models her instruction after that of Yo Yo Ma's father by systematically teaching him little tidbits of information, gradually increasing the frequency and intensity of the information. Sibylla's confidently pedantic tone eventually gives way to the monster of intellectual force that Ludo becomes. He then searches for his estranged father, taking Kurosawa's Seven Samurai as a sort of code of ethics for his search. He finds him at first, and after realizing that he is incapable of directly telling the man that he is his son, he continues on to four more men, lying to each one about his identity as their estranged son.

To some readers, Ludo might seem similar to Toph in Heartbreaking work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. The difference is that Ludo's precosity is clearly intended as a moral lesson about the limits of knowledge, whereas Eggers uses such an advanced developmental tone of language in a young character merely as a hollow, quirky schtick. It's a brilliant storytelling device on Dewitt's behalf. Just reading the dialogues between Sibylla and Ludo alone, make for such an engaging read, not to mention an amusing intellectual spectacle oriented around language. This all might sound dense, but Dewitt is such a capable storyteller that her characters obsessions never overwhelm what is essentially a damn good yarn.

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01/06/2010 page 130
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Jimmy Speaking of which, I can't wait to learn Japanese because I've clearly forgotten how to write and speak in English.

message 2: by Conrad (last edited Feb 05, 2010 09:39AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Conrad "...because we live in a culture with a profound hostility to mathematics, the type of person who writes fiction is likely to be the type of person who shares that hostility and can rely on a large audience which also shares it. Among other things, this means that someone like my friend Rafe Donahue, a biostatistician at Vanderbilt, tends to be both underrepresented and misrepresented among fictional characters. Once upon a time persons of color could only get parts in films playing servants, often with amusing eccentricities which confirmed the supposed preconceptions of the audience; the sort of person who grapples with data analysis is either not seen in fiction or appears as some sort of eccentric."

From HDW's website, paperpools.blogspot.com

message 3: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Great review, Jimmy!

Conrad Yeah, nicely done.

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