THE NEW ISHIGURO

 

 

Kazuo Ishiguro came to Britain from his native Nagasaki as a child in 1960; it was not until the 1980s that he held a British passport. He remains the finest (perhaps the only) Japanese-born novelist writing in English in Britain today. In 2017 he won the Nobel prize for literature.

 

Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro’s eighth novel, is a science fiction that tells the story of a bright and uncommonly observant AF or “Artificial Friend” called Klara, who has been designed to be a child’s life-sized companion. Narrated in the first person by Klara, the novel is a slow-burner: Ishiguro is in no hurry to get the plot airborne. The plot reveals itself subtly.

 

Solar-powered, Klara spends her days watching the world go by from her perch in an AF store in a big city. She yearns for companionship in a good home, and carefully scrutinizes the behaviour of humans who come in to browse (“umbrella couples”, “dog lead people”: all sorts). Nothing could be worse for a humanlike robot than to remain unsold. When Klara is low on solar (sun “malabsorption” being a design defect with older AF models) she feels disconnected and uncared-for.

 

One day a teenager called Josie picks Klara out from among the models on display. “Are you French?” she asks. “You look kind of French.” (Klara’s short dark hair and dark eyes suggest French engineering.) Klara delights in the longed-for attention; but Josie’s mother, whose stern gaze “never softened of wavered”, is wary. Klara may look pleasant but does she have the cognition and recall of the most up-to-date AFs? (The newer line of robots have been equipped with limited smell – useful in the event of a house fire.)

 

Klara becomes Josie’s companion, nevertheless, and settles gratefully into her new home, where she contemplates the patterns the sun makes on the floor (“the loveliness of the Sun’s nourishment falling over us”). Josie turns out to be gravely ill, however, while her mother is depressed by the death of her first daughter, Sal. Klara also has to contend with an aggressive housekeeper named Melania (the Trump allusion is certainly intended), who hates AFs and their sun worship. “I fuck come dismantle you”, she threatens Klara in broken English. “Shove you in garbage.” Humans of the Melania variety like to exert their power and privilege over artificial humans. They really don’t care.

 

As Klara has never been outside before, Josie’s mother takes her to see a waterfall. Josie is too sick to go along and the outing sours when Klara asks the mother about her deceased daughter Sal. “It’s not your business to be curious”, she snaps back. Quite why Josie has become so ill is never explained. She languishes in a virtual world of her own making. Teenagers stay glued all day to their “oblongs” (portable mini computers), and no longer seem to be of this world. The real world is a toxic place for them, shadowed by sinister data-gathering agencies and drone surveillance.

 

Klara pleads with the all-powerful sun to make Josie well again. (“Sun must be angry with me”, she reasons strangely.) Gradually, it dawns on her that she is being groomed to “be” Josie for her mother and for everyone else who loves Josie, should Josie die.

 

Ishiguro has been here before. Never Let Me Go, perhaps his finest novel after The Remains of the Day, was a dystopia that touched on themes of artificial intelligence and genetic editing. Ian McEwan’s recent sci-fi novel Machines Like Me may have also been an influence, but really Ishiguro’s is a unique voice – careful and understated but with an undertone always of disturbance.

 

In lesser hands, a fable about robot love and loneliness might verge on the trite. With its hushed intensity of emotion, Klara and the Sun confirms Ishiguro as a master prose stylist. In his signature transparent prose Ishiguro considers weighty themes of social isolation and alienation. Can artificial life ever be worth more than a human life? That is the question posed here.