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The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

The reason is that even in a fantasy
there is nothing even remotely erotic about a toilet bowl.
Hi, how’ve you been? I’ve been busy myself, thanks for asking. In fact, I was so busy I began contemplating a terminal hiatus from this, ostensibly purposeless endeavour. However, for reasons, I chose not to take it. So on with the show and back to Helen DeWitt.

If there’s one thing about this dense, frankly mind-bogglingly erudite book to love/find empathy with (apart from my own Canadian edition’s deckle-edged hardbackedness – deckle edges; good or bad? Discuss!), it would have to be the passages narrated by Sibylla, mother to genius progeny Ludo. As a parent to one post-toddler and one pre-toddler, as well as occasional taker-up-of-space in the lives of three other young human beings, there are so very few occasions where a simple conversation can be carried out to its logical terminus without interruption and digression; conversations start, stop, return to the beginning, are interrupted once more, are delayed and postponed, and cycle back again until it’s time to give up, get off and go home. Unlike (or perhaps, very much like?) the circular tube routes that carry fictional mother and son through the underground of London, where the carriages are nice and warm whereas the apartment is not, it is rare to be carried smoothly along to the end destination. Sibylla, in writing her thoughts on to the page as they occur to her, and in a style that her first agent and editors allegedly attempted to beat out of DeWitt in order to standardize the formatting of the text, themselves often disjointed and jumbled, a mix of memory, anxiety for Ludo’s education, and distaste for those irrational humans which make up the 99% of people who will avoid rational thought 99% of the time, frequently interrupts herself to carry on conversations with Ludo, who is usually reading classics in their original languages or demanding to learn all of the Japanese pictographs, or negotiating to find out the identity of his father, participant in a one-night-stand with his mother and, it turns out, the object of some vitriol and scorn as the Sibylla-described ‘Liberace’ of English travel literature. The fonts vary in size, sentences break across the lines and up and down pages, there are swathes of Greek and Japanese and Icelandic text where Sibylla attempts to find a simple way that any parent could teach a six-year-old a foreign language, and passages from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the cast of which serve as Ludo’s surrogate father figures, teaching him everything there is to know about being a man.

Later in the novel, as Sibylla slowly sinks into a state of nervous depression, her narrative is taken up by Ludo, whose disappointment at the discovery of his real father’s identity sends him on a crusade to find a suitable alternative amongst the men his mother knew and who could, conceivably, be persuaded to accept the fact he was their son. His quest adds the frisson of new voices and some delightful anecdotes from a motley crew of gadabouts, dastards and ne’er-do-wells.


Being a bit of a fan of novels that push the boat out a little, I was delighted to find that this book, which had been out of print for years and has only very recently found a new publisher and a deservedly wider readership, was one such boat-out-pusher. It’s daring, challenging, full of language play and knowledge, and damned funny in places, particularly when Sibylla enrols Ludo in a state school. The format I imagine was a complete bastard for proofers and copy-editors (good!) and despite some clunky passages, such as those lifted wholesale from texts on aerodynamics (or thermodynamics? I can’t remember as I only skimmed them briefly), never failed to impress upon me the ambition shown in taking on this mammoth literary endeavour. Not for the faint-hearted, it’s one to sink your teeth into if you’ve a mind to be properly absorbed.

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