Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 31, 2021

Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro, winner of the Nobel Prize in 2017

It’s not often that we get to read a new novel by a living winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.  This is partly because most laureates, by the time they win, are getting on a bit; partly because the judges have a fondness for poetry; and partly because we often have to wait for translations of novels written in other languages.   At the time of writing this, the living Nobel laureates who write novels are Patrick Modiano, who won in 2014; Mario Vargas Llosa (2010); J. M. G. Le Clézio (2008); Orhan Pamuk (2006); J M Coetzee (2003); and Kenzaburō Ōe (1994).

So Klara and the Sun, the first novel by Kazuo Ishiguro since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017, is cause for some excitement, and it’s well-deserved.  It’s a remarkable book.

BEWARE: SPOILERS ABOUT NEVER LET ME GO and KLARA AND THE SUN (but nothing about The Big One!)

Ishiguro’s preoccupation with a future that is already with us continues.  Never Let Me Go (2005) explored the idea of creating clones to use for their body parts, when already we know that some parents conceive children so that they can harvest bone marrow or ‘spare parts’ such as kidneys for a child already born.  (Jodi Picoult wrote about this in her novel My Sister’s Keeper in 2004).  There are also reports that body parts are harvested unethically in some countries: China reportedly takes body parts from convicted criminals, and people living in extreme poverty in India are reduced to selling theirs.

In Never Let Me Go, the clones were not fully human, but seemed so.  They were kept together until their body parts were needed and they formed asexual relationships with each other.  The narrator spoke in a curiously flat, detached tone, but she became real to the reader and so her inevitable ending was distressing.  Klara and the Sun OTOH envisages a world where the genetic enhancement of children is widespread, and where privileged adolescents with no real friends of their own, can have an AF, a ‘friend’ created with AI, artificial intelligence. These AFs are very sophisticated creations: they have the ability to ‘learn’ their human friend and while they are programmed always to put the interests of the human first, they also have the ability to weigh alternatives and to make judgments.  Once purchased, they become part of the household… though to what extent depends a great deal.

As it turns out Josie does have a human friend—Rick, who lives next door—but he is socially disadvantaged. Ishiguro reveals this carefully, at first letting his readers wonder why Rick is ostracised by teenagers and parents alike.  He’s different in some way that arouses prejudice, and the reader can only guess why that is, until it’s revealed that it’s because he has not been ‘lifted’.  His mother’s choice not to have him genetically modified affects all his life chances.  He will struggle to get into a university unless he can convince one of them to offer him one of the scarce places for un-lifted children because he’s exceptionally clever.

The story begins in the shop where Klara and Rosa wait for someone to buy them.  The manager soon realises that Klara has exceptional powers of observation, even though she is so limited in what she can see in her environment.  However, as the novel progresses we see that her vision is distorted, showing us, accurately, how complex vision is—how the human eye assembles what it is before it into coherent images because the human mind makes that possible.  Even these sophisticated AFs can’t replicate all the functions of the human body and mind.  What Klara ‘sees’ is an assemblage of boxes, messing up her near and distance vision.  As it turns out, it is not merely her vision that is distorted.

Josie, when she finally persuades her mother to investigate the purchase of an AF, is at pains to reassure Klara that she will be happy with them even though she is not always well.  Gradually the reader comes to understand the reason why there are few children available for real friendships…

Klara is so lifelike that the reader can’t help but empathise, but occasionally feels foolish for doing so.  (It is, after all, not unlike caring about a Siri or an Alexia.) Klara’s observations are both naïve and incisive, as when she ‘learns’ that Rick shows his other selves in certain situations.  He can be offhand, honest, sincere and guarded with her; he’s kind, confused and irritated when he’s with Josie; he’s scornful and defensive when he’s invited to an ‘interaction meeting’ designed to teach adolescents how to be with each other before they go to university; and he’s anxious, caring and angry with his mother Helen.  Klara is very clever at negotiating these different selves.

However, what Ishiguro shows so clearly is that AI is very intelligent but it only ‘learns’ what is presented to it, so its perceptions are distorted.  We all know how AI is used to track us as consumers: a Google search for a brand of car shows up in advertising on Facebook and Twitter; a search for a book at Goodreads shows up as adverts in online newspapers.  We can trick it by searching for something we would never buy, and until recently we tended not to think it was harmful because it’s only tracking just one of our selves, i.e. our selves as consumers.  Now in a post-Trump world we know that AI manipulates political choices as well, so we are not as sanguine as we were…

Klara, however, can also get things horribly wrong.  Knowing that she is solar-powered, she has translated her own dependence on the sun into a ‘belief’ that the Sun is an omnipotent, benign being.  She thinks the Sun intervenes to do good in the world, and that he can be persuaded to help in certain situations.  Ultimately, this leads to a situation where Klara recognises that self-sacrifice is required, and thus the novel asks us to consider what it is that makes us human.  Is it love?

Highly recommended.

Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Title: Klara and the Sun
Cover design by Faber
Publisher: Faber, 2021
ISBN: 9780571364886
Review copy courtesy of Faber via Allen & Unwin Australia

 


Responses

  1. I’m sorry, I can’t go past ‘spoilers’. I’ll come back. Promise!

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  2. And ‘m hoping to read it shortly as well :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Lisa, on reserve at the library. I skipped your spoilers.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. No, I can’t go past spoilers either, as I do like Ishiguro.

    BTW I think there are more living laureates who write novels than you list, though some of them write multiple forms. Like Mo Yan, Herta Müller, to name two more?

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    • I looked up both of those… (according to Wikipedia) Herta Muller hasn’t published any prose since 2011, and that title isn’t in translation yet; I can’t tell from WP if that’s a novel or not. From what I can tell because I recognise the title, her last novel to be translated was The Hunger Angel and that was back in 2012. Mo Yan hasn’t written a novel since 2009, and Elfriede Jelinek hasn’t since 2013.

      But even if we include those ones, there’s still hardly any of them writing novels. That, IMO makes it an event when I get one to read!

      Wole Soyinkaa, BTW, who hasn’t written a novel since 1972 has one coming out this year: Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth so that will be an event too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sorry, I wasn’t thinking about whether they were available in English or when they wrote their novels, but just that they did write novels. I missed your point.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Well, Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive the Plow came out I believe after her Nobel Prize win, if I’m not mistaken. (And I cannot wait for the translation of Book of Jacob), but I take your point that this had been written before her win, it merely took a while to appear in English translation. I am excited about this one – I haven’t liked everything by Ishiguro, but this sounds intriguing.

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    • I remember hearing (a good while ago now) Louis de Bernieres talking about the effects of an award on his writing… how there was an expectation that he would be available to talks and festivals and so on, and that although of course it was nice to win the award, for a writer who likes to work away quietly on a new book, it can actually have a detrimental effect.

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      • I think Szymborska said she stopped writing completely for a while after winning the Nobel Prize, so yes, it’s not an uncommon phenomenon.

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        • I’ve never read anything by her: she was a poet, wasn’t she?

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          • Yes, and she has a very simple but effective style, a bit like reading proverbs (but not trite at all). I love one of her responses to someone’s high-faluting poems: ‘Let’s take the wings off and try writing on foot, shall we?’

            Liked by 1 person

  6. I have not yet read anything by Ishiguro (but I am getting closer!), so I didn’t read the spoiler section. But I’m happy to hear you liked it! I have also noticed a couple of reviews around of his daughter’s book…

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    • I didn’t know he had a daughter who is writing too… gosh, imagine the pressure of having a father who’s won the Nobel!
      PS I looked her up: it’s a collection of short stories called Escape Routes.

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      • My thoughts exactly! I wonder if she considered using a different name?

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        • It’s a case of damned if you do, and damned if you don’t I think. There will always be people who think she got her foot in the door because of her father, and if she went ahead under a nom de plume and then was outed, people would still compare her to him.

          It can be fun, though. I once had an article published under a nom de plume in a newspaper when our wannabe dictator premier made it illegal for teachers to comment on the public education system (which he was busy destroying at the time). It was very hard to keep a straight face at work when people were talking about it.

          Liked by 1 person

          • That does sound like fun! :) (Too bad about your education system, though. I hope it got better!)

            Liked by 1 person

  7. […] about a Japanese trial of a robot friend (in concept, not unlike the one in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun) to help solve the loneliness problem of its elderly people?  (Japan has the world’s oldest […]

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  8. Lisa,

    Thanks for all the details you’ve included in your review. I didn’t mention the idea of ‘lifted’, that could spark a good discussion in a book group as topics such as getting into elite schools and universities, or the academic competitions among students, or perimeters of popularity among peers… are just a few I can think of. Thanks for stopping by Ripple Effects. I enjoy exchanging notes, since we can’t actually meet as in a real life book group discussion. I’ll share some more in my reply to your comment there on Ripple. :)

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    • Thanks, Arti, I’ve been back to your site to chat some more:)

      Liked by 1 person

  9. […] Marie is a strong and purposeful woman, who takes no nonsense from anyone.  She anticipates blackmail, and replies in kind.  (This is not so hard to do since all the men, with the exception of her Uncle Curtius who taught her the trade) are lecherous sleazes with not only the kind of behaviours that #MeToo has led us to expect, but some novel variations on the theme.   All this reaches a very satisfying conclusion, leaving the reader to ponder the question alluded to on the front cover: What if we could cheat death itself?  This is the same question that underlies Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun… […]

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