A Child Prodigy
The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt, her debut novel, is a book quite unlike any other, and in the process of reading it, one learns the basics of ancient Greek and Japanese. It is set in the present day, but within the pages echo the ancient past where the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as other Greek classics, are rediscovered.
The main character is the mother of a child prodigy. She herself is exceptionally intelligent, but due to the lack of a father figure in the family, she is left as the sole provider for the family. So while she works everyday and makes as much money as possible so she and her son can eat and survive, her needs his teaching.
At school he is not use, excelling in every discipline and reaching such a level of completion in set assignments that he affects the rest of the class. There is little choice but to keep him at home and let he mother teach him all she knows. His tools are the great texts, the Iliad, the Metamorphoses, the Odyssey – whatever he can get his hands on. Not only does he read through these texts with a voracious hunger, but he also reads them in their original language.
Even though he knows nothing of other languages at the beginning of the book, he begins at the start with the painstakingly slow operation of learning ancient Greek, learning what the letters represent, what they mean, and how to pronounce them. For help he has his mother, who is well taught in many languages.
They both share a passion for Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, quotes and passages of which are featured throughout the book. When the boy reaches an older age he takes on the proposition to find out who his real father is. Thus begins a long journey, a mirror of the Seven Samurai, where each man the boy seeks is one of the samurai, but each time he is disappointed. The book concludes naturally with the discover of who his father is, after many hopes being shattered.
The layout of this book is very appeasing, with a wide variety of spacing, resulting in a relatively fast read. For anyone who reads The Last Samurai, they will benefit greatly in a multitude of ways, from learning the essentials of basic languages, to discovering the complexities of characters, to learning everyday knowledge that everyone will find useful.
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Originally published on April 23rd 2001 ©Alex C. Telander.
Originally published in the Long Beach Union.