Shortly after the start of Helen DeWitt’s blow-you-away novel, Sibylla, formerly a brilliant Oxford scholar (she dropped out) tells us: “I would like to strike a style to amaze.” DeWitt’s novel does that and more. Sibylla is raising her 5-year old son Ludo as a single mother, and teaching as much as she can to her inquisitive son. He’s already reading Homer. In the original Greek. Ludo is the product of a drunken one-night stand and Sibylla never even told the father (a mediocre travel writer. She claims) of the birth of “their” son.
S watches Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai compulsively and obsessively. She offers the films heroes to her son as role models for the father he will never have. Ludo however, besides learning Japanese to better understand the film, wants more than celluloid role models. He wants to meet his flesh and blood father – whoever that may be. While Kurosawa’s film is constantly woven into the narrative in unique ways, there’s also another classic work of art that is mirrored in the narrative arc: The Odyssey. For in many ways DeWitt’s work is a quest novel, and the quest is Ludo’s: the quest to find his father. Whereas Odysseus is on a long journey home after the Trojan War, Ludo rides the London Circle Line in search of his father. It’s also a novel of identity and education: how we become who we are. We are what we read, see, and hear – a helix like composite of the things from outside that impinge upon our consciousness to form the being that walks in this world.
In a natural progression, the early stages of the novel are dominated by Sibylla’s story. Sibylla drives the narrative and asks Ludo to keep a diary. His diary alternates with Sibylla telling her story in her own words. But as Ludo grows older, the story is his, and he takes center stage. His quest takes center stage as well as he picks up clues and hunts down possible fathers. There are, not coincidentally, seven of them.
The many references, and many repeated references to the early scenes in Seven Samurai where Kambei has Katsushiro test the true worth of the samurai Kambei is trying to recruit, recall Ludo’s laying in wait for the seven prospective father he’s investigating. Kambei reveals the reason for this test: “a good samurai will parry the blow.” And the last part (V- He obviously thinks he’s a samurai) of the book has sub-chapters 1-6 all titled a good samurai will parry the blow and the final sub-chaper titled I’m a genuine samurai. And it is so. These last 225 some pages have many of the best moments in the novel and the ending is exquisite. Like Kambei who has “won” the battle, but feels a loss nonetheless, so too Ludo. Now a genuine samurai, integrity intact. Satori.
Straight No Chaser.