Books: “Klara and the Sun” by Kazuo Ishiguro

July 11, 2022 • 9:15 am

This is the fifth book I’ve read by Kazuo Ishiguro, who in my view has a strong claim to be the finest novelist writing in English. That’s unusual because his first language is Japanese, yet, like Joseph Conrad or Isak Dinesen, he’s overcome whatever strictures his first language imposed to become not only unrecognizable as a non-native speaker of English, but to excel even among writers. In Ishiguro’s case, this may come in pat from his moving to England when he was about five, and he’s visited Japan only sporadically since then.

Ishiguro was awarded a Nobel Prize for literature in 2017—before this book come out. (I recommend listening to Ishiguro’s wonderful 45-minute Nobel Prize lecture here.)

I was, as you know, trying to read all the Booker Prize novels I haven’t read, which are many, but I took a break, on a friend’s advice, to read Klara and the Sun (2021), Ishiguro’s latest novel.

At any rate, of the five Ishiguro books I’ve read, two are great masterpieces (The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go), and this book, which was nominated for a Booker Prize but didn’t win, is very great but not a masterpiece of world literature. It comes close, though, and I recommend it very, very highly. (By the way, if you haven’t read the two I recommended above, do so immediately, and then go watch the movies made of both. The movies are fantastic; I actually saw both before reading the books, and the disquieting film Never Let Me Go is what got me onto Ishiguro.

In the short video on the Amazon Page, Ishiguro touts his book almost reluctantly, but does say this:

It’s probably not inaccurate to say that Klara and the Sun is positioned in terms of its imaginary world and its approach somewhere midway between Never Let Me Go and Remains of the Day.

You can (and should) order the book; the screenshot below goes to the Amazon page:

I don’t want to recount the entire plot, which would reveal many spoilers (you can see it on the Wikipedia page), but I do want to say a few things. Why is it positioned between those two books?  The subject and narrator of the book is a “robot”, an “AF” (artificial friend) named Klara. She is purchased by the mother of Josie, a chronically ill teenage child, to be Josie’s friend and prepare her for college. (AFs were made in this tale to relieve loneliness.) The story, like that of Never Let Me Go, takes place in a not-too-distant dystopian future, and the first-person narration, as in The Remains of the Day, is also presented by a servant (in this case the AF, in the other book the head butler), both of whom come to realizations about life and humanity during the story.

Because the narrator of this book is an AI in a presumably humanoid body (Klara has hair, legs, and other organs, but they’re never explicitly described), the language used is simple, the way a newly made and naive robot entering the world would have written. Moreover, Klara doesn’t perceive her surroundings the way humans do: she is so constructed that most of the time she sees the world as a series of boxes in which separate images appear.  As the book progresses, you learn more and more about what’s going on, just as you do in Never Let Me Go. There is, for example, the practice of being “lifted”, which you must undergo to go to college, but only halfway through the book do you learn what that means. And Klara learns more and more about humans and her environment; before being purchased, she’d been awaiting a customer in an AF shop.

There are many themes of this book, the main one being Klara’s attempt to understand what it is to be human, and especially to be Josie. Klara obviously was instilled with some “feelings”—or simulacra of feelings like empathy (don’t ask me how) in the factory, but the subtleties of human emotion have to be learned over time. Fortunately, Klara is a keen observer, and at the end of the book reviews her experiences and what she’s learned. It’s not clear that she has real inner experiences—though it seems she does—or whether her AI program is just being updated.

The main emotion she can’t master is love, and she’s always inquiring of Josie and her paramour, Rick, if they are in love. I’ll leave the resolution to you except to say that the book, although it could be considered science fiction, is an absolutely serious novel that inquires “What does it mean to be human?”  Klara is also religious in her own way, worshiping the Sun as a god because she herself apparently runs on solar power. She thus attributes the healing power of the Sun to everything, and has her own form of paying homage to it, and even some prayers to the Sun. This plays a crucial role in the book.

The rest I leave to you so you can have the great pleasure of reading this short book (about 310 small page). I give it two thumbs and two big toes up. Of all the dreck on the market today, this stands out. As I said, it’s not a classic novel, but it comes damn close.

Here’s an 8½-minute video of Ishiguro talking about this book, noting that it started as a children’s book (and was inspired by picture books for children), but quickly expanded into a novel dealing with artificial intelligence.


24 thoughts on “Books: “Klara and the Sun” by Kazuo Ishiguro

  1. Wouldn’t someone who moved to England aged 5 and had all their schooling and interactions with all their childhood friends playmates in English pretty much be a native speaker? (I think that he does not write in Japanese, and has said that his Japanese is “awful”.)

      1. I’d say these things are matters of degree, not kind, in people who grew up as immigrants’ children. In the bygone days when the only available electronic media were those of the country of residence, people who arrived pre-puberty mostly had the ambient language as the dominant language by the time they were 20, were more competent in it, and spoke it accent-free. Many supposed native speakers of Turkish (who spent their first years in Turkey and grew up in Turkish speaking households) in my generation in Germany had a slight German accent in Turkish, but not vice versa, and their Turkish was often very limited. Nowadays, with the availability of home country media and majority-minority schools and neighborhoods, things have changed, individual variability is huge, as is immigrant language influence on colloquial German.

  2. I read the book last year and enjoyed it very much. Klara’s observation on what what make humans “special” struck me as a big truth.

  3. I remember first reading Conrad not knowing he was Polish (like me) and thinking: “these sentences are so weird”. I don’t think he overcame the structures of his first language. He incorporated them and that’s – among other things – what makes his prose interesting.

    1. Before coming to the UK, Conrad lived in France, and in some senses French was his second language. In a letter to an expat Polish magazine in 1949, George Orwell wrote: “He used I believe to think in Polish and then translate his thoughts into French and finally into English, and one can sometimes follow the process back as least as far as French, for instance in his tendency to put the adjective after the noun”.

      I must read the Ishiguro!

      1. Conrad was a literary genius, it seems to me. Remarkable that there are now frequent efforts to dump him in the ash bin of history because he wrote (thoughtfully! critically!) on occasion about colonialism.

        1. I agree; I’m a big fan – even of his “problematic” novel “The N-word of the Narcissus”.

  4. I’ve not read any of Ishiguro’s books but I have seen the film of Never Let Me Go. Although it was very well done and it forced me to re-evaluate my opinion of Kiera Knightly’s acting ability, I found it very depressing. Also, i could not suspend my disbelief on the point where an otherwise fairly normal Great Britain would indulge in such a barbaric practice as raising people to be organ donors. That spoiled it for me. I’d probably have the same problem with the book.

    1. As is so often the case, the film is a mere shadow of its source material. I suppose one’s impression is ruined by seeing a movie first, but I highly recommend the novel.

      1. I wonder

        How many Booker or Nobel winning authors’ works have entered the multiplex?

        It is a glimmer if hope, as I see it, as the place is inundated with endless comic book re-re-reboots.

  5. Many thanks for the intriguing book recommendations. In regard to polylingual writers, the one who impressed me most was Arthur Koestler, author of “Darkness at Noon”, other novels of ideas, brilliant political essays, and a fine science history, “The Sleepwalkers”. His first languages were Hungarian and German, he also wrote professionally in French and English, and was apparently competent in Russian and Hebrew. His English prose is exemplary, and so I was quite astonished that his spoken English (I saw him interviewed once on TV) suffered from such a thick Hungarian accent that he was difficult to understand. Polylinguality of pronunciation (like that of the actor Viggo Mortensen) is a different though related knack.

  6. … like Joseph Conrad or Isak Dinesen, he’s overcome whatever strictures his first language imposed to become not only unrecognizable as a non-native speaker of English, but to excel even among writers.

    See? Great minds — or in the case of you and me, a great mind and a lesser mind — sometimes think alike. 🙂

  7. The Nobel Prize speech is wonderful. Ishiguro’s sensitivity to human feelings is so beautifully expressed. I haven’t read his books but did see both movies. I just ordered Klara and The Sun after listening to him.

    I usually read nonfiction but his speech explains so much about his writing and I look forward to reading it.

  8. To the list of Ishiguro’s masterpieces, I would add “The Unconsoled”. Among other things, it contains the best rendition of dream states I have ever read.

  9. I read Klara and the Sun last year; it was BBC 4’s “Book of the Week”, but I found myself too impatient to wait for the daily episodes and bought the Kindle version. An interesting book, although not one that I would rave about. But definitely thought-provoking and something that stayed with me long after I had finished reading it.

  10. D’oh – that should be “BBC Radio 4’s” to distinguish it from (the TV channel) “BBC Four’s”. Depending on who is the new PM (in theory, Auntie Beeb is independent of the state; in practice, the government sets its overall funding), the Beeb’s budget will be cut. In any case, within “the next few years” BBC arts, documentaries, music etc. TV channel BBC Four will disappear as part of plans to “streamline and modify services” to create a “digital-first” BBC.

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