Part of Kazuo Ishiguro’s genius lies in his ability to create fresh alternative realities in every new book that dramatize, and deepen, emotions anyone can recognize: loneliness, uncertainty, regret. He whisks us out of the world we know and into a parallel realm—a boarding school for clones, an English country house in the 1930s—so we can observe, as through a microscope, the terror of being abandoned or the recognition that one has given one’s life to an illusion. In other hands this is genre fiction—the Arthurian quest, a detective story, science fiction; Ishiguro turns the works into probes as heartbreaking as Lear on the heath.
Klara and the Sun, his latest, is another fearless experiment. Its narrator, Klara, is a robot who happens, as the novel begins, to be sitting in a store in what sounds like New York City, waiting to be claimed by a customer. When she becomes part of a family, she has to puzzle out the dynamics of a world in which everyone is haunted by dimly sensed losses or fears. Like many an Ishiguro protagonist, Klara is at once preternaturally observant and constantly in the dark. She longs to be of service, like Stevens the butler in The Remains of the Day, but she can never make out the larger picture. In the displacing language that Ishiguro has made his own, both weird and strangely affecting, she says things such as “His switch of subject was highly unwelcome, but anxious not to lose his good will, I said nothing and waited.”
As ever, Ishiguro works with rare deliberation to give us an alien’s view of the world, pacing his story with so many hints and premonitions that it’s hard to stop turning pages. Only gradually do we realize that the “Boy AF Rex” and “Girl AF Kiku” who surround Klara in the store are “Artificial Friends.”
Once out in the streets, Klara, who looks to the sun as her source of power, finds herself in a blurry cityscape “full of shadows, puddles and jump-skaters.” Occasional flashes of imagery are the more piercing for being unadorned: a mother describes her daughter’s drawings as like “a pond on a summer evening.” Later, that same mother is remembered “watching the mist from the waterfall.”
Not till page 243 do we encounter the harsh phrase “genetic editing.” By then we’ve surely remembered that this is a writer who titled one novel When We Were Orphans and wrote the original script for a movie called The Saddest Music in the World.
Out of Time
Deep down, Ishiguro is a scientist of sorrow, bringing what feels like an ancient eye to our latest technological conundrums. In all his books he’s unfolding two stories at once: an anxious consideration of large historical and moral questions about blindness and nationalism and forgetting, and, beneath that, an often desolating human story of being left out in the cold. Here he suggests that, in an age of online learning, kids might lose the capacity to communicate. He shows us brilliant scientists replaced by machines and reflects on the treacherous choices that await us in an age of genetically modified children. But at heart the book’s power is universal and out of time: we come to see that the flourishing of one character here depends on the elimination of another.
Though Ishiguro has been living in England for more than 60 years, he seems never to have lost the acute sense of disorientation—and hyper-attentiveness—that must have come to him when he arrived in Britain from Nagasaki at the age of five. As Klara refers to the figures around her as “The Mother” or “Melania Housekeeper,” as she says things to her human friend Josie such as “I wonder when it was Josie went there?,” I couldn’t help remembering how Ishiguro kept speaking Japanese with his parents throughout their lives. All these curious locutions might be direct translations from the Japanese. Klara is almost painfully formal and polite and always wary of “stealing privacy,” as she says of intruding on others.
There’s a profound Buddhist sense of impermanence, and suffering as the first fact of life, in all Ishiguro’s books; here, though, I’m reminded of the animist Shinto tradition that still governs Japan and that traditionally has seen the emperor as a direct descendant of the Sun Goddess. Whenever we step into a train, my Japanese wife gives it a friendly human name, and suddenly the trip, aboard “Henry,” becomes a little more moving. Marie Kondo famously advises followers to cover a teddy bear’s eyes before throwing it in the trash, because in the land of anime, even a stuffed toy is believed to have a soul. It’s no surprise the country leads the world in robotics.
Ishiguro seems never to have lost the acute sense of disorientation—and hyper-attentiveness—that must have come to him when he arrived in Britain from Nagasaki at the age of five.
After traveling to Japan, foreign friends still tell me that it feels more like another planet than anywhere else they’ve been. In his books, Ishiguro evokes what a foreign planet England must have seemed when he landed there in 1960.
In all his impeccably thought-out works, Ishiguro keeps topical references and vernacular out so his writing can translate instantly to someone reading it in Urdu, or, perhaps, 30 years from now. And he storyboards his novels so precisely that every incident and detail rings out and becomes hard to forget. No writer gives us more eerie beginnings or more devastating endings, which allow us to forget that, in the middle of Klara and the Sun, there’s sometimes a surfeit of concerns, and the dialogue occasionally wavers between English and American (and even extraterrestrial).
Philip K. Dick wrote a celebrated novel—the model for Blade Runner—called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Undaunted and original even after being awarded the Nobel, Ishiguro dares to go further and to show us how an android might feel—and think and see. By the end of this extraordinary book, I had to ask myself: Is there any other living author who could move us to tears over a robot?
Pico Iyer is a columnist for AIR MAIL and the author of many books, including The Art of Stillness