The Last Samurai

The Last Samurai

by Helen Dewitt

Moving, funny and startlingly original, The Last Samurai has been sold in fourteen countries and is destined to become a cult classic. Ludo, age six, is a prodigy. His mother, Sibylla, raises him alone and tries hard to keep his voracious intellect satisfied, while she struggles to make ends meet. With her exasperated guidance, he teaches himself Greek, so that…  See more details below


Moving, funny and startlingly original, The Last Samurai has been sold in fourteen countries and is destined to become a cult classic. Ludo, age six, is a prodigy. His mother, Sibylla, raises him alone and tries hard to keep his voracious intellect satisfied, while she struggles to make ends meet. With her exasperated guidance, he teaches himself Greek, so that he can read The Odyssey, before moving on to study Hebrew, Arabic, Inuit, and Japanese. And both Sibylla and Ludo share a passion for Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, which they watch repeatedly, absorbing its lessons of Samurai virtue. Soon Ludo embarks on a quest to find his father, and approaches seven men to test their mettle. Each of them—prominent, powerful, or flawed in his own way—has to rise to a unique challenge.

An intellectual tour-de-force, playful, multi-layered, but wonderfully readable, The Last Samurai is full of stories of remarkable exploits, tables of Japanese grammar, snatches of Greek poetry, passages of Icelandic legend, and ingenious math problems. But it also has a rare emotional depth, as the little boy's search for a father, or even a man heroic enough to be his father, gradually reveals a new and unexpected dimension of love. And at the book's heart is the relationship between Sibylla and Ludo, which is moving and oddly memorable in its fusion of solidarity, frustration, and tenderness.

About the Author:

Helen DeWitt was born in Takoma Park, Maryland. She started a degree at Smith College and dropped out twice, the first time to read Eliot and Proust, the second time to go to Oxford to study classics and philosophy. She now lives in England.

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Editorial Reviews

Seattle Times
One of the outstanding first novels of 2000...inventive...a wonderfully drawn portait of a complicated relationship between a mother and her brilliant young son...
Time Magazine original work of brilliance...
The Boston Globe
The Last Samurai may be the find of the season. I loved the confident velocity as well as the promise of heady unconventionality. The spell sustained itself. Within pages I found myself caught up in the strangest and most gratifying intellectual novel I've read since Norman Rush's Mating and Nicholas Mosely's Hopeful Monsters...crisp and vivid...The Last Samurai is very much the story of an education, an arduous discovery of self...
—(September 24, 2000)
Washington Post Book World
...a brilliant debut novel...keeps things moving at an exhilerating clip...DeWitt is formidably intelligent but engagingly witty...she is a joy to read.
ѿ(September 17, 2000)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
DeWitt's ambitious, colossal debut novel tells the story of a young genius, his worldly alienation and his eccentric mother, Sibylla Newman, an American living in London after dropping out of Oxford. Her son, Ludovic (Ludo), the product of a one-night stand, could read English, French and Greek by the age of four. His incredible intellectual ability is matched only by his insatiable curiosity, and Sibylla attempts to guide her son's education while scraping by on typing jobs. To avoid the cold, they ride the Underground on the Circle Line train daily, traveling around London as Ludo reads the Odyssey, learns Japanese and masters mathematics and science. Sybilla uses her favorite film, Akira Kurosawa's classic Seven Samurai, as a makeshift guide for her son's moral development. As Ludo matures and takes over the story's narration, Sibylla is revealed as less than forthcoming on certain topics, most importantly the identity of Ludo's father. Knowing only that his male parent is a travel writer, Ludo searches through volumes of adventure stories, but he is unsuccessful until he happens upon a folder containing his father's name hidden in a sealed envelope. He arranges to meet the man, pretending to be a fan. The funny, bittersweet encounter ends with a gravely disappointed Ludo, unable to confront his father with his identity. Afterward, the sad 11-year-old resumes his search for his ideal parent figure. Using a test modeled after a scene in Seven Samurai, he seeks out five different men, claiming he is the son of each. While energetic and relentlessly unpredictable, the novel often becomes belabored with its own inventiveness, but the bizarre relationship between Sibylla and Ludo maintains its resonant, rich centrality, giving the book true emotional cohesion. Foreign rights sold in Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the U.K. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
DeWitt's first novel revolves around Sibylla, an American displaced in London, and her young son Ludo, both geniuses. Sibylla earns a bare living typing for mundane periodicals like Carpworld and International Cricketer, grudgingly squeezing her assignments between viewings of Kurosawa's classic film, Seven Samurai. Ludo, who has been reared on this film, decides to use the challenges it presents to find his own mysterious father. When he is disappointed with the real thing, he searches for a more acceptable candidate. The last half of the book is very readable and beautifully written, as Ludo discovers that perhaps the perfect father is nonexistent. Overall, however, the excessive display of erudition obstructs DeWitt's wonderful use of language and imagination. After spending too much time either trying to understand her rhetoric or skipping pages loaded with arcane languages or mathematical theories, readers may find it difficult to persist.--Patricia Gulian, South Portland, ME Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
New Yorker
A triumph— a genuinely new story, a genuinely new form, which has more to offer on every reading but is gripping from the very first.
Myla Goldberg
Exuberant . . . DeWitt is eager to display her intellectual and artistic gifts. It is easy to be carried along by the tempo of her prose . . . At its best, the writing is playful and engaging.
New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
In a witty, wacky, and endlessly erudite debut, DeWitt assembles everything from letters of the Greek alphabet to Fourier analysis to tell the tale of a boy prodigy, stuffed with knowledge beyond his years but frustrated by his mother's refusal to identify his father. Sibylla and five-year-old Ludovic are quite a pair, riding round and round on the Circle Line in London's Underground while he reads the Odyssey in the original and she copes with the inevitable remarks by fellow passengers. Sibylla, an expatriate American making a living as a typist, herself possesses formidable intelligence, but her eccentricities are just as noteworthy. Believing Kurosawa's Seven Samurai to be a film without peer, she watches it day after day, year after year, while in the one-night stand with Ludo's father-to-be, she wound up in bed with him for no better reason than it wouldn't have been polite not to, although subsequently she has nothing but scorn for his utterly conventional (if successful) travel books. Ludo she keeps in the dark about his patrimony, feeding him instead new languages at the rate of one or two a year, and, when an effort to put him in school with others his age wreaks havoc on the class, she resumes responsibility for his education, which, not surprisingly, relies heavily on Kurosawa's film. As Ludo grows up, however, he will not be denied knowledge of his father, and sniffs him out—only to be as disappointed with him as his mother is. Hopes of happiness with the genuine article having been dashed, Ludo moves on to ideal candidates, and approaches a succession of geniuses, each time with a claim of being the man's son. While these effortsareenlightening, they are also futile—and in one case tragic—until Ludo finds his match in one who knows the dialogue of Seven Samurai almost as well as he does. Unabashedly over the top at times but, still, a saga that gives rise to as much amusement as it does sober reflection. A promising start, indeed.

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Product Details

Knopf Canada
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.18(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.25(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 4

19, 18, 17

1 March, 1993

19 days to my birthday.

I am reading Call of the Wild again. I don't like it as well as White Fang but I have just finished White Fang again.

I am up to Odyssey 19.322. I have stopped making cards for all the words because there would be too much to carry around but I just make cards for words that look useful. Today we went to the museum and they have a picture of the Odyssey, it is supposed to show the Cyclops but you can't actually see him. It is called Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus. Ulysses is the Latin name for Odysseus. There was a card on the wall saying you can see Polyphemus on the mountain but you can't. I told the guard they should change it and he said it was not up to him. I asked who it was up to and he said maybe the head of the gallery. I tried to get Sibylla to take me to see the head but she said he was too busy and it would be more polite to write him a letter, she said I could write him a letter and practise my handwriting. I said why don't you write a letter. She said he had probably never had a letter from a five-year-old before, if I wrote a letter and signed it Ludo Aged Five he would pay attention to it. I think this is stupid because anybody could sign a letter Aged Five. Sibylla said true, one look at your handwriting and he won't believe you're a day over two. She seemed to think this was hysterically funny.

2 March, 1993

18 days to my birthday. I have been on the planet 5 years and 348 days.

3 March, 1993

17 days to my birthday. We rode the Circle Line today because we couldn't go back to any museums. It was tedious in the extreme. One funny thing that happened is that a lady got into an argument with Sibylla about two men who were about to be flayed alive. Sibylla explained that one of the men dies of heart failure at time t and the other at time t + n after having someone peel off his skin with a knife for n seconds and the lady said pas dev and Sibylla said I should warn you that he speaks French. Then the lady said non um non avanty il ragatso and Sibylla said not forward the boy. Not forward the boy. Not. Forward. The boy. Hmmm. I'm afraid I don't quite understand, you clearly have a command of Italian idiom which I cannot match and the lady said she thought it was not a suitable subject for discussion in the presence of a small child and Sibylla said oh I see, and that's how you say it in Italian. Non avanty il ragatso. I must remember that. The lady said what kind of example do you think you are setting and Sibylla said would you mind if we continued this discussion in Italian, I feel that it is not a suitable subject for discussion in the presence of a small child or as they say in Italian non avanty il ragatso. After she got off the train Sibylla said she should not really have been so rude because we should be polite to people however provoking and I should not follow her example but learn to keep my inevitable reflections to myself. She said it was only because she was a bit tired because she had not been getting much sleep and otherwise she would never have been so rude. I am not so sure but I kept my inevitable reflections to myself.


Chapter 5

We Never Go Anywhere

Early March, winter nearly over. Ludo still following scheme I do not understand: found him reading Metamorphoses the other day though he is only up to Odyssey 22. Seems to have slowed down on Odyssey, has only been reading 100 lines or so a day for past few weeks. Too tired to think of new places to go, where is there besides National Gallery National Portrait Gallery Tate Whitechapel British Museum Wallace Collection that is free? Financially in fairly good position as have typed Advanced Angling 1969-present, Mother and Child 1952-present, You and Your Garden 1932-1989, British Home Decorator 1961-present, Horn & Hound 1920-1976, and am now making good progress with The Poodle Breeder, 1924-1982. Have made virtually no progress with Japanese.

Another argument about Cunliffe. L: Why can't we go to the National Gallery again?

I: You promised you wouldn't go through doors marked Authorised Personnel Only.

L: It didn't say Authorised Personnel Only. It said Staff.

I: Exactly. In other words people who worked there, because the people who work there want to get on with their work without being disturbed by people who don't work there. If at some stage you decide to reject the theory of a Ludocentric universe do let me know.

We go to Tower Hill to catch a Circle Line train. The Circle Line is experiencing delays, so we sit down & I discover that Ludo has smuggled Kalilah wa Dimnah into the pushchair. He takes it out and starts reading, turning the pages quickly -- the vocabulary is pretty easy and repetitive, should really have picked something harder but too late now.

A woman comes up & stares & admires & comments, How on earth did you teach so young a child?

She says she has a five-year-old herself & presses me for my methods which I explain, such as they are, & she says surely there must be more to it than that.

L: I know French and Greek and Arabic and Hebrew and Latin and I'm going to start Japanese when I finish this book and the Odyssey.


L: I had to read 8 books of the Metamorphoses and 30 stories in the Thousand & One Nights and I Samuel and the Book of Jonah and learn the cantellation and do 10 chapters of Algebra Made Easy and now I just have to finish this book and one book of the Odyssey.

[What!!!!?] My admirer says that's wonderful & that it's so important for small children to have a sense of achievement, & then drawing me slightly aside says that all the same it's important to keep a sense of proportion, one needs to strike a balance, dangerous to carry things to extremes, moderation in all things, not that she means to interfere.

By the looks of things I have about three days' grace before I start teaching Japanese to a child with no sense of proportion whatsoever.

My admirer is still hovering & hesitating, having struck a blow for moderation she says something or other about her own child who is no genius.

I say What about French, she might like to learn French

& she says I know it sounds awful but I haven't the time.

I say she is probably expecting too much, why not teach her just one word a day & let her colour it in in a book wherever she finds it, the secret of success is to complete a single simple task on a daily basis.

Is that what you did? she asks looking awestruck at Kalilah wa Dimnah (which is completely ridiculous as it is a very easy text, far too easy in my opinion).

No, I say. But it is still the best method.

Two Circle Line trains came and went and a District Line train pulled in and pulled out on its way to Upminster. She said But how did you get him to do all that work and I explained about the five words and the Schwan Stabilo highlighter & she said Yes but there must be more to it than that, there must be more to it than that --

so that I could not help thinking of things I would rather not think about, such as how hard it is to be nice and how hard it was going to be to be nice.

She seemed to be really interested because now a Barking train came and went and still she was here. She said what she meant was for example she had studied Latin herself, well if you teach a child French the simple task could be a word whereas in an inflected language the grammar was so frightfully complicated surely beyond the grasp of a four-year-old child.

I said I thought small children liked matching things up, it was not that big a deal, I just explained that the words had to match and he could see that they matched, though of course it probably made more sense when he got used to the idea.

She was smiling sympathetically. What a nice thing to explain to a four-year-old child.

I had not planned to give him a whole declension on the first day as I knew very well what Mr. Ma would think. L seemed to be having such a good time colouring in words with his highlighter, though, and it is always such a relief when a small child finds something to do that it is happy to go on doing, that I wrote out some tables for him (including the dual), with the comforting reflection that Mr. Ma was not there to see it. I told him he could colour in any of the words that he found & then I went back to John Denver leaving Iliad 1-12 on the chair.

Four or five hours went by. After a while I looked up and he was doing something on the floor. I went over to him and he smiled up at me. He had gone back to the beginning of Iliad 1 in my Oxford Classical Text, and he had highlighted his five words and all occurrences of the definite article all the way to the end of Iliad 12, so that every page had blocks of green scattered over it.

He said Where is Volume Two? I need to finish this.

I said patiently after a short pause I don't know where it is, I was looking for it earlier, and I added patiently Perhaps you should learn some more words and go back over Volume I again instead. You could use a different colour. If you need more practice you can go on to Volume II.

He said All right. Can I have ten words this time?

I said Natürlich. You can have as many as you want. This is tremendously good. I thought it would be too hard for you.

He said Of course it's not too hard for me.

& I looked again at the coloured page and I said


That was all I said, & it was too much. A chittering Alien bursts from the breast to devour your child before your eyes. He looked down at the page,

& I returned to my work and he returned to his work.

I had tried to be patient and kind but this was not very nice.

A week went by. I have heard it said that small children have no powers of concentration. What in God's name is to keep a small child from concentrating on something? L anyway was a monomaniac. He would leap out of bed at 5:00 in the morning, put on four or five sweaters, go downstairs to get out his eight Schwan Stabilo highlighters and get to work. At about 6:30 or so he would rush upstairs to report on his progress waving a fluorescent page in my face and I disapproving of the type of parent who fobs a child off with Wonderful Wonderful would murmur Wonderful and then disarmed by a face like a new penny ask questions. Elephant stampede up and down stairs for a couple of hours & time to get up.

A week as I say went by. One day I snatched a few moments from typing to read Ibn Battuta & L came up and just looked. He didn't say anything. I knew what this meant: it meant for all my good intentions I had not been very nice. So I said: Would you like to learn it? And he naturally said he would so I went through the whole procedure again, and I gave him a little animal fable to read in Kalilah wa Dimnah. And now each night I would look up the next twenty words in each book and write them down for him so that it would not be so boring for him at 5:00 in the morning.

Four days went by. I tried to be careful but you can't always be careful and one day I went to look something up in Isaiah. I got out my Tanach and he came over and looked and that was that.

Copyright© 2000 Helen DeWitt

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Meet the Author

Born in Maryland, Helen DeWitt grew up mainly in South America, and now lives in England. She read Classics at Oxford, where she also gained a DPhil. Rights to this, her first novel, have been sold in ten countries.

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