In literature as in life, a fine line often separates the ambitious from the merely pretentious. In her dazzling debut novel, The Last Samurai (Talk Miramax Books/Hyperion; 530 pages; $24.95), Helen DeWitt walks this line with the utmost confidence. Describing the book, however--a work that covers decades, spans oceans, has sections in Japanese, Greek and Old Norse, and touches on chess strategy and Laplace transformations, whatever they are--may be tricky, so hang on tight.
Sibylla is a single mother in London with a surplus of brains but a deficit of funds and support. Her son Ludo--the result of a one-night stand with a man Sibylla calls Liberace on account of his mawkish mediocrity--is some kind of insatiable genius; the minute he learns one thing, he gobbles up the next. "I taught him to count past 5 and he counted up to 5,557 over a period of three days before collapsing in sobs because he had not reached the end...I taught him to add 2 to a number and he covered 20 sheets with 2+2=4 3+2=5," Sibylla explains. How old was he? "I think he was about 3," recalls his mother. By five he knows Arabic, Hebrew, French and Greek and is desperate to learn Japanese.
In the winter, to escape their unheated flat, they ride the Circle Line all day long, Ludo's stroller laden with books--these would include The Odyssey in Greek, some Japanese primers and The House at Pooh Corner. The pair are happy to sit and study; for Sibylla, the hardship comes with the stream of comments from other passengers astonished to see a child reading Greek. "Faced with officious advice feel almost overwhelming temptation to say:...'I know, I'll take the Tube, somebody on the Tube will be able to advise me...Thank you so much,'" Sibylla notes.
These early scenes with Sibylla and Ludo provide comic relief in an otherwise haunting, melancholy work. The novel is almost free form, with shifting narrative voices and scholarly digressions on whatever happens to fascinate Sibylla or Ludo at any given moment. Enveloped in their cocoon of lonely eccentricity, mother and son watch Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai over and over, and fragments from the film float through the novel like a refrain in a minor key. Eventually, Ludo begins a quest of his own, not to recruit samurai but to track down a father, any father. "I felt ashamed, really ashamed of all the years I'd spent trying to identify the father who happened to be mine, instead of simply claiming the best on offer," Ludo says. He pursues one extraordinary man after another, whose stories are told in surreal dreamlike interludes, like something out of Don Quixote or, of course, Kurosawa.
Strip away the layers of erudition--not that one would want to--and an elegant structure remains: a book about a boy and his mom; about the search for a father; about trying to find one's way in the world. The Last Samurai is an original work of brilliance about, in part, the limits of brilliance. And in literature as in life, DeWitt understands that what we like most of all is a good yarn.
--By Elizabeth Gleick