Are You My Mother?; or, Why Bob the Builder Haunts Me


I have this fear. It’s about my oldest nephew Joshy: 3 years old. He’ll head off to school in a couple of years and my spleen acts up each time I think of his finding out that not every kid is obsessed — obsessed, I say — with tools and tractors and forklifts (oh how the kid loves his forklifts–every Saturday night his parents and my parents take him to eat and then to Lowe’s or Home Depot just so he can see the forklifts at work) and anything else that has to do with construction or farming. He has his own forklift — a toy one, but still — and when he rides it, I’m not sure he knows there is a world outside of the forklift. Having no children of my own, and not being with him every day, I don’t have to worry about specifics. Like, is he eating vegetables or does he share or does he know red from green or is he watching too much television. So I worry about the larger picture. Like how to get him to accept people who, say, don’t know exactly what a 2 x 4 is, or how to get him to expand his interests to other things that other people like so as to not end up playing with his tractor and begging someone to help him plow his field of corn.

Ludo is the hero of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai. He is by educational standards an extraordinary child. He can read Ancient Greek. At the age of 4. He can read and write in several different languages by the age of twelve. Self-taught. His mother, Sybilla, learns with him. If he wants to learn Japanese, then they learn Japanese together. He, in fact, does want to learn Japanese and is a much better student, at 12, than his mother is. He works harder at it. Masters it. He’s obsessed with Japanese because he is obsessed with the Japanese classic film, The Seventh Samurai, which he’s obsessed with because his mother is obsessed with it, which she is obsessed with because she knows he has no friends and no father figure and thinks for some or other reason that this movie will provide a good substitute for a father figure and friends. They watch the movie almost endlessly and Ludo’s sole reason for learning Japanese is to be able to understand the dialogue in the movie. No Fooling. (And then once he learns Japanese, he gets upset because he doesn’t think the English subtitles do justice to the subtle nuances of the language.)

Do I even need to add that he has no friends? Sybilla wants to raise (or to be grammatically correct and please my mother: rear) a perfect child. Problem is, she doesn’t let him be a child. Anyone who reads Homer in the original Greek at 4 is definitely not a child. Brilliant!, yes, but not a child. Not someone who will have something to talk about with his fellow kindergarteners. I’m not trying to critique Sybilla’s parenting because most of the time, she lets Ludo decide what he wants to learn. She doesn’t have to force stuff on him. He devours books. His mind is a computer willing itself to sentience.

Ludo doesn’t have much contact with anyone other than his mother, and they have a really strange relationship. They have only each other and yet there is an underlying tension between them, especially when he proves himself smarter than her at such a young age. Despite his broad knowledge base, he has almost no practical knowledge. He simply does not know how to interact with other people. He knows how to play with the tractor in the imaginary corn field, but he wouldn’t know what to do if a kid asked him to play catch.

Ludo’s obsessions with learning and all things intellectual eventually do turn themselves outward. He tires of teaching himself and learning book-type things and decides to actually do something. He decides to find his dad. Problem is, his mom won’t tell him who is dad is. For whatever reason–not explained–she does not want Ludo to know. He begs. He sneaks into her room looking for clues–notes, pictures, something. Nothing.

Since most of his interactions with people haven’t been with actual people but instead and/or rather with characters in a movie from a different country made many years ago, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Ludo’s approach to finding his father is somewhat anorthodoxical. He will find a clue–a name in one of his mom’s books, a picture, seemingly insignificant somethings–and will track down the man. His interactions with these men are sometimes hilarious, as Ludo doesn’t really know what to do when he finds them and his conversations are…ummm…interesting. I mean, really, what does a 12 year old Greek reading, Japanese speaking, math wizard (I didn’t mention that–the kid eats math before his afternoon nap) from London with questionable social skills say to a random man–a random man whom he wants to ask if just maybe about 12 years ago did he just maybe remember having maybe met this woman (holds out a picture) and maybe could you, sir, be my father?

Ludo’s quest mirrors Kurasawa’s The Seventh Samurai (okay I don’t make films, but if I did they’d have a Samurai), as he searches for his savior, the Samurai who will save the town. Or at least himself from his lonely, fatherless, intellectual existence.

I know I shouldn’t worry about my nephew. He’ll be okay. He’ll learn to play catch, even if it means his corn field gets weeds in it. Ludo turns out okay. Sure, he’s wierd, but he figures things out eventually, like most of us do. Probably figures things out sooner than most of us, since he kind of didn’t have a childhood.

One of the interesting things DeWitt does in this novel involves voice. I usually hate it when the character’s in a book are indistinguishable–like, everyone of them talk in the same exact way. I like to have characters with some character. Something in the way they talk that gives them a distinct personality. DeWitt, however, kind of blew me away though by not doing this at all. Brilliant! At least, there isn’t much of a distinction at all in the voice of Ludo and Sybilla. Brilliant! Ludo spends all of his time with his mother, so he ends up talking about the same things and in the same way and with the same intonations as his mother. Brilliant! I spend an embarrassing amount of my reading time wishing writers would have done a little more to give their characters that little extra something that sets them apart from each other (do I even have to add that I don’t have many friends?). DeWitt, I imagine, spent quite a lot of time making Ludo and Sybilla almost interchangable, at least as far as the dialogue goes. Brilliant!

Next week I, as Sir Wednesday informed me, will write on Wednesday and Wednesday will write on Friday (actually, I suspect he’ll be posting shortly and posting about meatloaf and/or undergarments). So the coming Wednesday you can anticipate a little story from me about meeting one of my favorite writers.

Currently reading: Perdido Street Station, by China Mielville (lights and tunnels, spitting distances, etc., finishing-wise with this book). A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories, by Flannery O’Connor (I’m officially attracted to this saint of a woman. For the moment, at least, it’s in non-sexual way). Theodore Rex, by Edmund Morris. In other words, I’m reading the same exact things I was last week. Hoping to start new books soon.


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