Friday, October 22, 2010

The Reading List: The Last Samurai

The Last Samurai
Helen DeWitt

The first thing to know about The Last Samurai is that there aren't any Samurais in it. Well, except in the sense that it makes much reference to, and is in a way structured around, the Akiro Kurosawa film The Seven Samurai. Of the two principle characters, one is passionately, perhaps obsessively, attached to the film, and the other reenacts, or thinks he reenacts in an allegorical sort of way, a few specific scenes from the film. It is a bit subtle, and I'm not sure I caught it all on the first reading, but I think we can safely say that the Kurosawa film is deeply interwoven into the narrative, and leave it at that.

No, wait. I can't leave it at that. Because for as much as The Seven Samurai is referenced in this book, virtually all of the referencing is to events in the first half of the movie. This is significant, because this focus on the anticipatory half of the film highlights how the characters in The Last Samurai are more or less frozen in inaction. They spent all their energy acquiring a treasure-house of knowledge, but are each for their own reasons unable to achieve anything meaningful with what they have learned. They spend so much time recruiting samurais, so to speak, that they never get around to defending the village.

Now, this all might be a little more clear if I told you what The Last Samurai is about. Here goes: It's about a single mother in London and her little boy, a child prodigy with a superhuman gift for languages. In the earlier stages of the novel, the mother's voice is dominant. She talks a lot about how difficult it is to raise a child who has an insatiable thirst for learning and no hope of interacting normally with peers.  We sympathize with her plight.  As the boy grows older, however, he gradually takes over the narrative and, seeing her through his eyes, we begin to realize that his mother is decidedly eccentric and probably a bit mad. As he begins to realize this himself, he goes out to search for alternative adult role models, armed with all the wisdom of a precocious 11 year old and a vast but highly eclectic knowledge base. The resulting encounters are funny, poignant, and quietly tragic.

Obviously, this is not your garden-variety third-person-omniscient novel. Each of the two primary characters speak in the first person, often about each other and often unreliably. They overlap and interrupt each other. Often, they tell stories about people they've met or read about, and the subjects of these tangential stories become their own first-person narrators and sometimes tell stories of their own. All of these narrative layers, occasionally interspersed with various documents and quotations, create something of a scrapbook effect. Since I'm still a little hungover from Ulysses, I can't help but see the direct or indirect influence of James Joyce in all of this, but perhaps I shouldn't evoke the U-word since there is nothing turgid about The Last Samurai. Indeed, for a book that takes on some rather bleak themes (such as "what's the point of even going on living in such an awful world anyway?") and allows its characters rather fewer triumphs than they might hope for, Samurai is quite funny. Certainly, it was engrossing enough to keep me up late three nights running. It is in fact quite brilliant and lovely.  I loved this book.

Sadly, The Last Samurai is still Helen DeWitt's only published novel, ten years later. Once you've read it, this will make you wonder more than usual about how much of the author's own experience of life is represented in her central characters.  It's none of our business, but we'll still wonder.  But, we won't be able to have that conversation until you've read the book. So get cracking!


Jenners said...

You may have made a sale ... yet you didn't read MY samurai novel. Sniff.

Michael5000 said...

Your samurai novel was too... samurai-y.

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

I thought it was a John Belushi biography.