The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt, or the consolations of literature

“In later years my father sometimes played a game. He’d meet a man on his way to Mexico and he’d say, Here’s fifty bucks, do me a favour and buy me some lottery tickets and he’d give the man his card. Say the odds against winning the jackpot were 20 million to 1 and the odds against the man giving my father the winning ticket another 20 million to 1, you couldn’t say my father’s life was ruined because there was a 1 in 400 trillion chance that it wasn’t.”

I wasn’t going to write about this book; I’ve reviewed it before, I’ve paraded its virtues and recommended and recommended it so I thought, perhaps, I’d already done it to death. But a recent re-read, coinciding with the EU Referendum, I realised that there is still more to say about it. The Last Samurai is my ‘go to’ book; it is the book I can always read however I’m feeling, it’s the book that I always enjoy, which is fun, clever and insightful and it teaches me something every time. And I was thinking about it today, thinking about what it was that made it extraordinary and I wanted to share it. And I wanted to share this too: literature, good literature, can console and uplift us, it can help us to see ways to solve our problems that we hadn’t imagined, it can give us courage and insight, it can expand our capacity for compassion and joy and tolerance and pity, it can help us empathise, to see another point of view even unpalatable ones and help us to accept it. It makes us think. It can stop us from reacting or giving in or lashing out. It gives us space for pause and reflection and it gives it relentlessly and without expectation of anything in return. If ever there was a moment to thank the awesome writers out there, giving us their insight and their stories, now surely is the time. So thank you Helen DeWitt. You have given me years (yes years!) of pleasure, comfort and laughter. I’ve benefited from your insight and, yes, I am one of those people who thinks boredom a fate worse than death.

I’m not going to go into detail about the book, really I’d rather you discovered this for yourself or, if you prefer, you could read my earlier review. What I want to write about is how The Last Samurai has helped me think my way through the problem, the disappointment, and show me a path to move forward. It starts with Ludo, age 11, on his quest to find a father of his choosing, someone worthy like one of the Seven Samurai, as he approaches one of his potential fathers and faces his inevitable fear:

“At first I thought I was not going to be able to do it. But then I thought if you’re a coward you deserve what you get. You deserve what you’ve got.”

Yes, I think, if I’m a coward I deserve what I get (or maybe I won’t achieve my desires, being kinder to myself) so cowardice is not an option. I must not shrink from what needs to be done. This message is reinforced by Szegeti, a gambler and possible father of Ludo, who saved a bunch of people from certain death by pretending he was a consul and gifting them British passports:

 “I say of course, and that’s the way it felt at the time – nothing I could do, the only thing was to save my skin. But it got at me the whole way back. I kept thinking, what if just riding onto the field had stopped it? What if a witness was enough to stop it? But it was such a godforsaken place. They could have shot me and thrown me in a ditch and nobody the wiser. But I kept going over it, back and forth, the whole way back. I can’t tell you what it’s like to see something like that, that horrible place that God had turned his back on. I thought: I’m damned if I spend the rest of my life telling myself I’m not yellow. I thought: there’s got to be something I can do.”

Yes, because often we think that we are just one person and what we do doesn’t make a difference. But if the referendum has taught us anything, it is that one person makes a difference. I am one person. My contribution matters. Maybe I only get the future I want by trying for it, even though I’m only one person. We build the country we want by our actions. Compassion, bravery, kindness: these are all powerful tools. I choose them.

One of the things I’ve been most disappointed about is the number of people who have come forward since the vote saying they wished they’d voted otherwise. Part of that is covered in the comment above, very many people felt their vote didn’t matter and I don’t think anyone can be blamed for that, we all think it and experience of elections teaches people to believe that’s the case. Then again, I’m frustrated. If people have voted on the basis of wanting to ‘take back control’ then beyond scratching an ‘x’ into a box they really have to do something. Taking back control involves doing more than sitting back and waiting for the politicians to do something for them, for the situation they want to mystically appear around them. This is where I start getting angry again, and so I turn to The Last Samurai again:

 “He said: What you’ve got to understand is that you simply can’t afford to act as if you were dealing with adults. You are not dealing with people who want to understand how something actually happens to work. You’re dealing with people who would like you to rekindle a childlike sense of wonder.”

Aren’t we all guilty of that? Yes, I think that is as much true of me as anyone else, I’d like things to be wonderful without having, necessarily, to understand how they work (though I do often try to understand how things work). But we spend our childhoods being filled with this sense of wonder which gradually drips out of us as we grow up, like we’ve slit our wrists and everything marvellous and wonderful drip drips out. I don’t think I can be angry at people who are trying to believe in a better future (though if you read Marcus Aurelius, as I also did, then you would know that there is no future, we only have what we have now and what we have now is all we can lose).

Then again, when I am angry I also think it is right to put a bomb underneath the bottoms of the people that have gifted us this (non-existent, thank you Marcus Aurelius) future. Because they really don’t seem to know what they have done, what I hear the most is that it’s now for [insert name of someone else: government, politicians, etc] to sort it out. Yet they have a responsibility to everyone now, because every vote counts, and whilst I think there has been a lot of dismissal of the people who voted to stay, it is true there has been a lot of complaint (I’m sure leave campaigners are capable of finding their own literature to lead them forward on this point), there is a responsibility on the side of those who voted to leave, now, to show the rest of us this great vision of the future, to build a bridge across the gap and help us to see how much better it can be. But at the moment it feels a little like this:

“Some people do what they do because everybody does it and it doesn’t make them sick that that’s what everybody does it makes them feel trapped once or twice but better most of the time. If somebody says the magic words they wake up for a little while and go to sleep again. You think I should stop feeling sick if somebody does something because they hear the magic words, but it’s not a question of should, it’s a question of what happens. It doesn’t. That is it wouldn’t. It wouldn’t and that’s why I can’t say it any more. I just look at people. Sometimes I look at them thinking What are you waiting for and sometimes I look at them and say What are you waiting for.”

What are you waiting for? Those who believe we’re better off out of the EU, show me the way. Start acting. Doing. Give me the vision. Positives, not negatives. By this I don’t mean those few, not representative people, who are taking the opportunity to shout racist abuse at migrants, but rather those who believed the future would be better outside the EU. Because I want to see it, but at the moment I can only see what I’ve lost and we are drifting, rudderless, into the mist and fog and no one seems to be able to say what happens next, what are our building blocks and steps, how do we move towards this great future that exists outside the EU? I’m willing to be convinced, I’m willing to be brave, I’m willing to use my tools of compassion and kindness and bravery to support that better future. Because as Ludo’s great-grandfather reminds me:

“Something looked through my grandfather’s beautiful eyes. Something spoke with his beautiful voice, and it said: It’s only fair to give the other side a chance.”

It’s only a book, but it’s clear that The Last Samurai is full of admirable characteristics; characters who believe in a vision of something and pursue it relentlessly. Maybe that’s what’s missing here. Show me someone pursuing the positive vision relentlessly and perhaps, like Ludo, I will find something to believe in. In the meantime, there is The Last Samurai and The Seven Samurai (and Marcus Aurelius) and perhaps I can do no harm by taking instruction, and comfort, from them.

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About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
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4 Responses to The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt, or the consolations of literature

  1. Such a thoughtful, impassioned post, Belinda. My fervent wish now is for a period of calm, considered reflection amongst politicians which I hope will point the way forward. it’s very febrile out there, a great deal of clamour, but we need thoughtful leadership to help us all play our part in the way out of what feels to many of us to be a calamity. Sadly, I’m not at all sure we’re going to get it.

    • bookbii says:

      Thanks Susan. I was thinking about this yesterday in the car on the way to Ikea (nothing like getting lost in Ikea & coming out back into the light with a set of bowls you didn’t intend to buy to set your mind straight) and I was talking myself around all the things I needed to do to get comfortable with this, and that line from Ludo about being a coward and getting what you deserved sprang to mind. And then the rest did. And it made me realise that one of the reason I love books is because they open my mind up to alternative realities and really it’s not that scary. So I’ve been reading a bit of Marcus Aurelius again today, because there’s something about old stoics that can set your mind at ease and perhaps that’s what we, the disappointed readers, can do for ourselves (and each other) to help salve the sadness and disappointment. Read, and find ourselves a new path. One of the things reading MA made me realise is that although the Brexit may create a barrier between me and Europe I don’t have to allow it to stop me from being a European and it doesn’t mean I have to capitulate on what I believe in. That can’t be taken away from me, unless I allow it to be. And that made me feel better. Whether it helps when I’m next sitting in front of my French, Spanish, Belgian, German, Dutch or Danish colleagues, I’m not sure. But I think they know I still love them. I wish they didn’t have to shoulder the blame for what is, essentially, a British problem.

      I know what you mean about needing a period of calm reflection. Like you, I’m not sure we’ll get it but then perhaps Boris will emerge tomorrow with his grand master plan and the next steps will become clear. I have watched less TV and Twitter today, and that has helped. And tomorrow I’m back at work, and that’s when the hard work really begins.

      • I’m sure your colleagues will accept your continued Europeanness gladly. Wise plan to stay away from Twitter. My partner and I plan to try and lose ourselves in a film for the evening.

  2. Pingback: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt | biisbooks

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