Helen DeWitt: The Last Samurai


After reading ‘JJ: Sila Kuripppugal’ in Tamil (In my opinion, one of the greatest pieces of world literature; in my very personal top 250 books it is there – but, whose only available english translation – ‘JJ: Some Jottings’ (hic) -‘is *very* tragic and endlessly shoddy *and* unfathomably nauseating – but then it is another story – oh, how I hate this translation! *sigh*) of Sundara Ramaswamy quite a few times and the Invisible Cities of Italo Calvino AND remembrance of things past (of course in the distant past having devoured my own delicious quota of Dostoevskies, Joyces, Borges et al) – I had decided that I was reading too much of fiction and anyway the new ficciones of these days generally sound grotesquely corny and pointelessly laboured (of the likes of critters like Arnudhati Roys and Paulo Coelhos of these days) and so what is the *pleasure* of reading these dead-trees and then sulk with the sinking realization that yet another quite-a-few-days have drearily gone down the drain while trying to read them…

But Then The Last Samurai (TLS) of Helen DeWitt (HD) happened; before this unfortunately forgettable incidents involving Donna Tartt and Mark Haddon happened, jacking up my despondency levels, but then…

Oh this is how it happened, more or less, circa 3 years back; spouse goes to the local ‘lending’ library and comes back with this book – because it had cute math stuff in it and on random browsing she chanced upon Akira Kurosawa and lengthy references to Shichinin no Samurai (SNS)! And she thought, her spouse would like to at least browse through it.

Rest was herstory, Helen’s I mean..

What joy, what a pleasure – absolutely the same kind of pure exhileration that I experienced some 2.5 decades back or so, when I first read Godel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid – revisited me.


I kept renewing the ‘borrowal’ and rationed only 20 pages per day to myself (this was very difficult) when I could not take it anymore, bought the tome thru’ a friend that happened to visit the city of the circle line – London. Needless to say, am now a proud owner of a (by now) semidogeared copy of the book which now cosily sits in between our copies of Remembrance of things past (or is it – in search of lost time :-(, alas) and Ulysses.
A long acquisition story, but believe me, these TLS kinds of fiction get written only once in a while and they hence have to be devoured with pleasure.

This, like a few other tomes I like, is fully layered and reveal rather coyly and abundantly its various facets and realms upon many rereads that would naturally follow, rather addictively. The way this book pushes the limits of language and story telling *and* pagemaking – is very exhilarating, to say the least.

At the first reading one would immediately recognize the basic story line with the single mother Sibylla struggling to bring up her prodigal kid – Ludo. If one chooses to, one can be floored completely by the rich tapestry of HD’s notes on various fantastic real life characters (that would include the likes of Glenn Gould, JS Mill, Isambard K Brunel et al, et al!) that are woven into the story; oh and then, the fanatically polymathic nature of the child and its mom… And then the well crafted conversations and chiselled thought fragments… My mother tongue is Tamil (as HD would say ‘a language with a mono-syllabary’) and it is dear to my heart but it gives me immense happiness and a feeling of being *very* fortunate that I know enough English too – to read and appreciate such fantastic works of literature. :-)


In the second, one would encounter, the subtle and not so subtle humour and Donald Richie inspired takes on various scenes of the SNS and Sanshiro Sugata (with some sarcastic remarks thrown oh-by-the-way at the mainstream Hollywood movies or I would say the so-called mainstream anything!), the sudden flourishes of numbers and sequences playing out crescendos and Greek alphabets that wait patiently to ambush you when you are living in some other world. Oh and the other (completely formed) stories (each of which could possibly be expanded in their own right into – inquels? :-)) involving Ludo’s possible role models and how they fascinate the child and ultimately how they don’t live up to his expectations and much else…

One does not even realize the cute match-cuts to SNS and seamless integration of certain happenings to Kikuchiyo to/with the basic story of Ludo that is woven in rather nicely… and with very cute departures on music and overtures to sciences. Endlessly rising canon?

In the later satisfying sorties, one would recognize how this child tries to bring up his prodigal mother and himself – while not becoming cynical at all, and the humane and considerate nature of the child and its mom…

Being a many splendoured polymath obviously does not mean that one should be aseptically clinical and cynically manipulative of the world ad nauseam – and/or being indifferent to the world etc; am not saying HD is preaching universal brotherhood, love for all fellow beings and stuff or giving a grandiose message or commandments – but, I think, according TLS, one can start by humanizing himself/herself thru’ discovering the polymath that is screaming to get out…. and have fun all the way – even if one has to type the past issues of ‘angler’s quarterly’ everyday for a living.

Without much dramatization and dicing and splicing and deconstructing *and* quoting extensively (where do I even *try* to begin) – TLS is easily a masterpiece that deserves a good place in the bookshelves and has to be savoured a few pages at a time, may be at least once every year at least…

To be honest, after reading TLS, for days together I was in a daze – because as the book says somewhere in the Chad land quest of pure percussion seeking: ‘there is nothing to get back to.’

Heard that HD has written another tome – your name here – gotta read that.

Also should get ‘Ptolemaic Alexandria’ of Fraser – because ‘it is a superb work of scholarship which no home should be without.’ :-)

The Last Samurai is very strongly recommended.

JournalEntry: Saturday, August 09, 2008

Note added on 21st June, 2013:  I am sure DialForBooks can procure this book for you…


One Response to “Helen DeWitt: The Last Samurai”

  1. […] really, really wish that the fantastic Tarsem would make a film out of The Last Samurai of Helen Dewitt! […]

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