The Last Samurai

(This column was first published in the February 22, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)

All I can say is: WOW! Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai (Hyperion, 2000) is the most remarkable, the most creative, and quite simply the BEST book I have read in a very long time. But -- why is there always a but? -- I know that it will not be everyone's cup of tea. If the inclusion of Greek and Arabic letters and oriental ideographs -- even though you're not expected to read them -- puts you off, if you're unwilling to see the genuine humor in following such things as a mother attempting to manage the demands of a compulsive learner, you're in trouble here. If, on the other hand, you're willing to suspend judgement until you get to the enormous heart of this wonderful book, you will have a thrilling ride ahead.

My dictionary defines a polymath as a person of great wisdom or extensive knowledge and offers synonyms such as savant, sage, genius and guru. Not only is the hero of this book, the child Ludovic, a polymath, but so too is this young author. And the author has more. She has genuine humanity. She loves her two central characters, Lud and his mother Sybilla, and you cannot help but come to love them as well.

In these commentaries I always try to let the author speak for her or himself. Here I find selections difficult to choose, there are so many great stories. Consider only a few, the English spelling retained.

Here Ludovic first confronts reading. His single mother has a meaningless but necessary job typing the text of magazines into a computer but she is constantly interrupted:

"I never meant this to happen. (L is reading Odyssey 5. He has read four books in four days. I would carry on from where I left off but I have misplaced my notes.) What I meant was to follow the example of Mr. Ma (father of the famous cellist), who I read somewhere started teaching Yo Yo when he was 2.

"Coupez la difficulte en quatre was his motto, which meant that he would reduce a piece of music to a number of very small short tasks; the child was to master one task a day. He used the same procedure with Chinese characters, the child learning a character a day -- by my reckoning that makes two simple tasks but you get the picture. I thought that this would be an enormous help to L for very little trouble to myself, & when he was 2 I started him on flashcards.

"I think that the first simple task was supposed to be cat. No sooner had he mastered this simple task than he wanted to go on, he wanted every single word in his vocabulary on a card, he sobbed PURPLE PURPLE PURPLE when I tried to stop before writing it down. The next day he started his first book, Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss, no sooner had he started than he started to cry because he did not know Hop and Pop. I saw in a flash that the time required to teach a two-year-old workaholic by the look-and-say method would leave perhaps 6 minutes a day for typing, & so (doubting my ability to make ends meet on 55p a day) I hastily went over a few principles of the phonics system. He learned to say huh when he saw an h and puh when he saw a p and by the end of the week he could read as follows: Hop. On. Pop. The. Cat. in. the. Hat.

"I thought: It worked! It worked!

"He would sit on the floor and when he found something interesting he would bring it over to show me.

"Thunder of tiny feet. He had unearthed a treasure. Yes? I would say

"And he would produce from the page -- O Joy! -- a thing of glory

"The

"Wonderful!

"And here was another find! What could it be? Could it -- No -- Yes -- Yes -- It was a

"Cat

"And he would pluck from the page one marvel after another, until at last he could nonchalantly draw now a rabbit, now a dove, now a string of coloured scarves from an ordinary empty black top hat.

"Wonderful marvellous wonderful marvellous cool

"I was not getting as much work done as I had hoped.

"One day it occurred to him that there were quite a lot of other books on the shelves.

"He selected a book with pictures, and he came to my side, perturbed.

"The face on the gutta percha inkstand has a tale to tell

"I explained gutta percha, inkstand and tale

"it is believed to be that of Neptune, moulded to commemorate the successful use of the material to insulate the world's first submarine telegraph cable from England to France in 1850.

"& I said NO.

"I said You know a lot of these words don't you, and he said Yes, and I said Why don't you practise reading the words you know and you can pick FIVE WORDS that you don't know and I will explain them.

"I don't know how much of this deal he understood. He asked for Neptune, moulded, commemorate, successful, material, insulate and submarine. I explained them in a manner which I leave to the imagination. He read a few words that he knew and put the book on the floor. Then he went back for another book. What a delightful surprise! In, And, To and our old friend The in Truth and Other Enigmas! Sadly, however, no sign of gutta percha or Neptune.

"He put the book on the floor and went back to the shelf.

"20 books later I thought: This is not going to work."

Because they cannot heat their apartment on Sybilla's meager earnings, they are forced to ride the London subway during the day:

"Of course L has not been reading the Odyssey the whole time. The pushchair is also loaded with White Fang, VIKING!, Tar-Kutu: Dog of the Frozen North, Marduk: Dog of the Mongolian Steppes, Pete: Black Dog of the Dakota, THE CARNIVORES, THE PREDATORS, THE BIG CATS and The House at Pooh Corner. For the past few days he has also been reading White Fang for the third time. Sometimes we get off the train and he runs up and down the platform. Sometimes he counts up to 100 or so in one or more languages while eyes glaze up and down the car. Still he has been reading the Odyssey enough for a straw poll of Circle Line opinion on the subject of small children & Greek.

"Amazing: 7

"Far too young: 10

"Only pretending to read it: 6

"Excellent idea as etymology so helpful for spelling: 19

"Excellent idea as inflected languages so helpful for computer programming: 8

"Excellent idea as classics indispensable for understanding of English literature: 7

"Excellent idea as Greek so helpful for reading New Testament, camel through eye of needle for example mistranslation of very similar word for rope: 3

"Terrible idea as study of classical languages embedded in educational system productive of divisive society: 5

"Terrible idea as overemphasis on study of dead languages directly responsible for neglect of sciences and industrial decline and uncompetitiveness of Britain: 10

"Stupid idea as he should be playing football: 1

"Stupid idea as he should be studying Hebrew & learning about his Jewish heritage: 1

"Marvellous idea as spelling and grammar not taught in schools: 24

"(Respondents: 35; Abstentions: 1,000?)

"Oh, & almost forgot:

"Marvellous idea as Homer so marvellous in Greek: 0

"Marvellous idea as Greek such a marvellous language: 0

"Oh & also:

"Marvellous idea but how did you teach it to a child that young: 8

"I once read somewhere that Sean Connery left school at the age of 13 and later went on to read Proust and Finnegans Wake and I keep expecting to meet an enthusiastic school leaver on the train, the type of person who only ever reads something because it is marvellous (and so hated school). Unfortunately the enthusiastic school leavers are all minding their own business...."

By the middle of the book the child takes over the story:

"J. S. Mill started to learn to read when he was two, just like me, but he started Greek when he was three. I only started when I was four. By the time he was seven he had read the whole of Herodotus, Xenophon's Cyropaedia and Memorials of Socrates, some of the lives of the philosophers by Diogenes Laertius, portions of Lucian and Isocrates' ad Demonicum and ad Nicoclem, as well as the first six dialogues of Plato, from the Euthypbro to the Theaetetus!!!! He also read a lot of historians I have never even heard of. He didn't start the Iliad and Odyssey until later whereas I have read both but they are the only thing I have read. I don't think he did any Arabic or Hebrew but the things I have read in them are rather easy and anyway I have not read a lot.

"The thing that is worrying me is that Mr. Mill was rather stupid and had a bad memory and he grew up 180 years ago. I thought that it was quite unusual for a boy my age to read Greek because a lot of people on the Circle Line were surprised that I was reading it but now I think that this is probably fallacious. Most of the people on the Circle Line did not say anything at all but I thought they would be surprised because the people who said something were surprised. This is stupid because if they were not surprised why would they say something? And now I am supposed to start school in three months."

What follows, of course, is a painful but fortunately brief confrontation with the schools. Now Lud sets out to find the father his mother will not identify or at least a suitable father replacement. And the candidates are delightful. My favorite is a perfect caricature of Carl Sagan. Here he pontificates on television:

"Today the programme began at Wembley Stadium. Sorabji stood in the middle of the field.

"He said how big an atom do we need to see the nucleus? He took from his pocket a tiny steel ball. He said that if this were the nucleus of a potassium atom the atom would be the size of the stadium, and 99.97% of its mass would be in the tiny steel ball, which would weigh about 105,000 kilos. For those of you who have trouble visualising 105,000 kilos, said Sorabji, that's roughly 110 Vauxhall Astras.

"Wembley wouldn't let us stack 110 Vauxhall Astras on the field, he said regretfully. But here's one we made earlier.

"The camera cut to a car park. The stadium was now in the background. In the foreground were 110 red Vauxhall Astras in an irregular polyhedral formation, stacked in scaffolding that looked as though it had gone a heartstopping five times over budget.

"There was a helicopter standing to one side.

"Sorabji looked up at the structure which was about four times his height. He said the good thing about this example is that we get a real sense of the weight of a nucleus the size of a tiny steel ball. The bad thing is that we tend to lose sight of the electrons. Literally. The electrons of this 105,000-kilo nucleus weigh about 1.5 kilos apiece, and to see what that means we'll have to go to Luton because the first two are in a shell 30 kilometres away.

"The helicopter's propellers began to turn, and the helicopter to rise. Below it dangled a rope ladder. Sorabji leapt onto the ladder and began to climb. We were in the 39 Steps segment of the programme.

"Below the helicopter you could see the red structure shrinking first to the size of a football, then a tennis ball, then a golfball, then a tiny dot and then it was gone.

"A camera in the helicopter showed mile after mile of houses and Sorabji on the rope ladder. We had seen the programme before but Sib said she wanted to see it again.

"The helicopter came down 30 kilometres away at a field near Luton. Sorabji stepped onto the ground. He said: One of the things that makes electrons so hard to think about is that they don't have size in the normal sense of the word, and another is the fact that you can never know exactly where an electron is at any given time. This makes an electron highly unlike this 1.5-kilo free weight from a local gym. But a 110-Astra nucleus at Wembley weighs about 72,000 times as much as this 1.5-kilo electron at Luton, and in that it's highly like the relation of the nucleus of a potassium atom to an electron. He showed on a map that the second shell would be at Birmingham and the third shell would be at Sheffield and the fourth at Newcastle and he said that instead of going on to Birmingham he was going to introduce Mr. James Davis of Dunstable Tae Kwon Do. Mr. Davis was a black belt, fourth dan; he was going to break a brick with his bare hand."

This book meets my tests of a masterpiece. It speaks to the human condition. It is original. We are drawn to its characters. It makes us think. It is leavened with great good humor. And, of course, it is a genuinely moving story. DeWitt deserves a place between Twain and Swift on your bookshelves.