The book by Helen DeWitt, not the film

40 bandits stop on a hill above a village in Japan. They decide to raid it after the bailey harvest. A farmer overhears.
A village meeting is held. The farmers despair.
1 leaps to his feet with burning eyes.
Let's make bamboo spears! Let's kill all the bandits!
You can't, says 2.
Impossible, says 3.

-The Seven Samurai
Akira Kurosawa

Ah, how I remember those days! Eleven years and counting, I took my first step into the world of literature (or at least high-level fiction), wary of the cartoonish caricatures placed in substitute for characters, tired of those cheaply crafted plot lines standing in for where stories should be. The first mature novel I read for pleasure was The Last Samurai, one that I cherish to this very day.

A first glance

The first time you pick up this book and slide haphazardly through a few passages, you'll find it a pretty easy book, perhaps even mundane. You then flip a page, skimming its contents carelessly, then stop to re-read that page again, a little surprised at the gaps between paragraphs. You'll find that DeWitt took a lesson or two from Kafka. Oddly enough, DeWitt does make a surprisingly complex writer at times. She might even be anti-Proustian in her short, choppy 'hops' around a description. This tendency gets a little annoying, but it servers its purpose. I advise: give it a careful read or two and let it grow on you--it's contradicting themes and non sequitir narrative will make sense in the end.

Once you get past the oddities, there's the story. It traces the exploits of Ludovicus and his mother Sibylla, misunderstood geniuses cast out by the mainstream educational system; Sibylla immigrated herself from the States to escape mediocre grades and disguise herself as an eligible candidate for Oxford's classicist program by lying about her grades and writing a hell of an essay; the disguise works but is eventually tossed aside in frustration, when she then works in a publishing firm and eventually conceives Ludo by annoyed and quick fornication with the literary equivalent of Liberace (same in all ways except for sexuality). Aged and unimportant, Sibylla's story is cast aside for Ludo's as he grows up and as he, too, finds the mainstream educational system redundant, fallacious and meaningless.


Every so often, after the floor is handed to Ludovicus, the narrative cloth is plunged by the sudden erection of a new storyline, following the collegial lifestyle of Hugh Carrey (HC) and Raymond Decker (RD) or of Sibylla, along with several other seemingly unrelated history pieces or short biographies, which are always miraculously tied back to Ludovicus. The reader can choose to appreciate or detest this novel's narrative style at his or her wish, but I would recommend giving the former a try.

Ludovicus himself is an interesting character--he's arrogantly full of himself due to his astonishing intellect and sense of logic; he's learned several common and exotic languages before his eleventh birthday and he has dabbed a little in calculus and fundamental engineering. His brilliant observations, crafted by his architectural knowledge, often topple on top of him by the unfortunate laws of reality and entropy of the universe. Though he's capable of a level of thinking much beyond his years, one can still see a little child in him. This juvenile spirit in him fuels his search for the father he never knew.

But what does the story of a English-American boy prodigy have to do with samurai? Honestly, very little. The reference has to do with a blatant allusion to samurai brought up in the book. As Ludo becomes familiar with more and more languages, he's turned towards Japanese as his mother raises him around Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai--a failed attempt to compensate the lack of one real father with seven synthetic ones--, and he lusts after it. Gradually, the boy picks up Japanese in his search for his father and goes through seven (!) men in his quest.


So, does this mean you have to watch The Seven Samurai (or its western equivalent, Tall Men in Tight Skinny Jeans) to understand the book? No, at least not in a practical sense. Certainly, the allusions will jump out at you more, possibly making an interpretation of this novel more plausible, but its necessity is extant only inasmuch as studying languages is necessary to understand Ezra Pound's Cantos. In fact, simply by the hilarity of some passages and the general tension of the plot, this book is actually quite accessible.

If you're like me, or Ludo or Sibylla or HC and RD, you imagine this muck of stories tedious and pointless. Some pretentious broad trying to make a name for herself in self-congratulatory literary circles, you're thinking (and you wouldn't be alone in that thesis). Well, it's not; believe me. The entirety of this book is entertaining and most of it is damn funny. Putting the pieces of this book together and making sense of it isn't a tedious puzzle nor a hopeless cause, just a life lesson packed in the most effectively poignant package possible.

The book itself was received both warmly and harshly by critics and the reading public alike. Some praised it for its sheer humor and originality and scope of characterization, while others knocked it down for pretentiousness and vainglory. A simple Amazon search can illustrate this plainly.

General Appeal

Hellen DeWitt may have meant this book to be biographical in nature of her quick transformation into a Oxford scholar. In fact, she herself left America for England and quit an academic life in 1989, working on novels here and there, finally settling with finishing this one. Who knows whatever other similarities she shares with Sibylla. Surely then, this book is a product of human experience, something I could relate to then and now, something you can relate to within a few free afternoon reads.

At eleven years of age, I was no Ludo myself, and I find today, five years older in a subsequent perusing of the book, many facets that I couldn't hope to understand at the time and perhaps some things that I still am unable to grasp. I recommend any avid reader pick this book up and take a gander. I don't regret it, despite its daunting length.