Klara is an AF – or artificial friend – who does everything she can in the service of her human friend, Josie, who inhabits a very stratified society, where the wealthy can advance through the use of new technologies, one of which is the AF. This is the premise of Klara and the Sun, the new novel from Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro. Ishiguro, the acclaimed writer of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, spoke to Seán Rocks on Arena about his latest book, which is narrated by the eponymous artificial friend, something which, he told Seán, presents him with limitations he has to grapple with:
“I’ve always liked narrators who have very limited vision. And in a way, we the readers can actually see what she’s not seeing. And it also allows me to focus very much on very specific things. So Klara, because she’s a creature that’s been created – she’s a machine that’s been created – to stop teenagers from becoming lonely, certainly initially, she sees everything through the lens of loneliness.”
From the window of the shop where she’s for sale, Klara looks out at the humans passing by on the street and wonders how many of them are lonely. According to Ishiguro, it’s an advantage, if you’re a novelist with “certain preoccupations,” to have a narrator like Klara to give you a real focus. But Klara’s limited vision begins to expand as the novel progresses and she becomes curious about aspects of humanity beyond loneliness, for instance:
“What do human beings mean when they say they love each other? – when members of the family are caught in these emotions. And she ends up asking, I suppose, big questions, like, is there something unique about each individual human being that makes them very, very special and not replaceable?”
Literary novels that deal with advanced technology tend to lean towards the dystopian, but Ishiguro appears to be more optimistic than some when it comes to the likes of artificial intelligence and gene editing:
“I am quite excited by the opportunities that are presented in these fields. I think the first thing to say is that there have been enormous strides just in the last few years and I suspect that we haven’t as a society quite woken up to how rapidly there’s been development in both of those fields.”
The obvious danger, however, is what Ishiguro terms the “savage caste” system that would allow the few to benefit from scientific breakthroughs in healthcare and genetics – including genetic enhancement, as happens in Klara and the Sun – while the many are denied.
Kazuo Ishiguro was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017 and the mention of the prize allows Seán to steer the conversation towards Irish winners, notably Samuel Beckett, whose influence can often be detected in Ishiguro’s work. Seán quoted a line from Klara and the Sun: “Hope. Damn thing never leaves you alone.” And Kazuo agrees that it is indeed a very Beckettian line, then tells Seán that his wife likes to spot Beckett references in her husband’s work. But the new book evokes Synge more than Beckett for its author:
“Klara is to a large extent about – it has images of loneliness, not just everyday loneliness, you know, lacking companionship, but it suggests that there is something fundamentally lonely about the human condition. And I think Synge is very powerful about that.”
You can listen back to Seán’s full conversation with Kazuo Ishiguro – it’s a terrific interview, touching on Japan, the role of literature in the 21st century and the importance of the Nobel Peace Prize, among other topics – by going here.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro is published by Faber and Faber. And Kazuo Ishiguro will be in conversation with Sinéad Gleeson, as part of the International Literature Festival, Dublin, at 7.30pm on 12 March. Further infromation here.
Niall Ó Sioradáin
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