On March 3, 2021, author Kazuo Ishiguro returned to the literary fray with the publication of “Klara and the Sun”, his first novel since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017.
While this alone is noteworthy, I find the author’s initial intentions for the novel far more intriguing; originally, he had planned to publish it as a children’s book. He first pitched the idea to his daughter Naomi Ishiguro – an acclaimed author in her own right, whose literary debut ‘Escape Routes’ was published last year-. The younger Ishigruo replied; “You can’t possibly give young children a story like that. They will be traumatised.”
What could he have possibly suggested to evoke such an unequivocal response? Oh, just another silly bedtime story- in which an artificially intelligent being comes to terms with mortality, class division, and empathy while taking care of a dying child.
The novel tells the story of Klara, an AF, or artificial friend; an android imbued with Artificial intelligence, specifically geared towards providing companionship to older children and young adults. She is noted for her insight and curiosity, although these traits are secondary to her primary motive; providing companionship and care to a child. She is purchased for the companionship of Josie, a 14 year old girl with a mysterious illness which advances throughout the course of the novel. Klara comes to live with Josie, along with her high-powered businesswoman mother. The story follows her time with Josie, and the realizations she makes along the way.
Themes of individuality, loyalty, and class division are hallmarks of Ishiguro’s work–a ‘repetition’ about which he bears no qualms. He instead views his works-or those of any novelist-as an exercise in continuity, in which one comes closer to perfecting whatever message it is the author desires to express through fiction. This accounts in part for another theme imbued in “Ishiguroland”, as Guardian journalist Lisa Allardice aptly coined; the utilization of genre not as a defining component of a narrative, but rather one through which a discrete story is told.
Even in the most fantastical of Ishiguro’s novels, the fictional world is intentionally crafted to be no more than a few steps from our own. His 2005 novel “Never Let Me Go” follows three teenagers who exist only to be harvested for their organs; a story he called “only a slight exaggeration of the human condition.” Such is also the case in Klara and the Sun, in which class division and technological advancement is put on ‘fast forward’ to say, what could comprehensively be 20-30 years into the future. Relationships and the nature of ‘being’ are at the forefront of the novel, augmented by Klara’s status as a non-human observer to the human world.
In many ways, Ishiguro stuck with the tenets of the children’s novel he found most poignant-such as the jump from text to imagery. Klara’s descriptions of the world utilize few allusions to certain abstract concepts, observing the world in a manner that a child with limited knowledge of certain objects or phenomena might.
At the same time, the emotive aspect of her narrative is incredibly complex and evocative. She is dedicated to better understanding the world around her and emotionally comprehending the complexities of human emotion, in order to better fulfill her purpose as an AF. In doing so, she is forced to grapple with unexpected complications, reason with the logical inconsistencies and moral failings of human society, and ultimately come to terms with increasingly objectionable truths.
Many aspects of this novel make it an incredibly topical piece of contemporary fiction; growing class division, the advent and complexity of artificial intelligence, and the moral implications of advancing technology among others. More than that though, it exemplifies a ‘timeless human greatness’ that the author once alluded to before. Upon receiving the Nobel literary prize, Ishiguro recalled the first time he heard of the Nobel as an institution. Inside his childhood home in Nagasaki, he saw the cover of a book divided into two parts by the face of a ‘Western man’. On one half, there was a background of explosions and destruction–on the other, a blissful scene of tranquility, and angelic wings? He asked his mother what the juxtaposition meant. Voice swell with emotion, she told him that it was about the man who invented dynamite; and how, after seeing the destructive power of his invention, the same man decided to create an institution dedicated to lauding man’s capacity to create, rather than destroy. Cliche as it may be, I believe Kazuo Ishiguro has delivered on what he described upon receiving one of the highest literary honors only 3 years ago.