“Clare and the Sun” by Kazuo Ishiguro; Button (320 pages, $ 28)
Klara, the narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, is not human, but understanding people is her mission. In “Klara und die Sonne” the reader follows her on this mission, in a world that seems like our own in a not too distant future. It’s a dazzling and deeply moving journey.
Ishiguro, who was born in Japan but lived most of his life in England, has written seven previous novels, including the Booker Award-winning Remnants of the Day, as well as short stories, lyrics and scripts.
“Clare and the Sun” is his first novel since he received the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature. He underscores how well he deserves this award, in his beautiful craft and prose, and in his delicate but unshakable sense of the human heart.
Ishiguro has often removed the boundaries between literary and genre fiction, drawing on science fiction and mystery in “Never Let Me Go” or on fantasy and fable in “The Buried Giant”. In “Klara and the Sun” there are tapes of all these genres.
Klara is an AF or artificial friend, a kind of robot with a human appearance and a high level of artificial intelligence, intended to serve as a companion for a child or teenager. The book begins when she’s “new”, lives in a shop that sells AFs on a busy city street, and learns to understand her little piece of the world.
Some things are programmed into their AI. She can estimate a person’s age at a glance and determine whether their suit jacket has a “high” social status. It can judge whether the tiny wrinkles around a woman’s eyes suggest a smile or a suspicion.
Clare has a deep reverence for the sun, which she regards as a deity. It might seem strange to fit into an Android, but AFs are solar powered, so paying attention to the sun is a matter of survival for them – and, as Klara believes, maybe for some people.
When it comes to things that are not in her code, Klara is programmed to observe and learn. When 14-year-old Josie and her mother walk into the store, Klara notices that the girl is pale and thin and has difficulty walking, but that she is also smart and adept at manipulating adults. Josie also learns quickly – she notices how Klara deals with the sun and promises her that they can watch the sunset together in her house.
It doesn’t take long for Klara to be Josie’s AF, living in a comfortable house far out of town with a sunset view. Josie is delighted with her; It takes Klara longer to find out how she gets along with her mother, a tense woman who runs to work every morning, and the gruff housekeeper Melania. (Clare tends to label people according to their roles.) But Clare is determined to find harmony because the focus of her programming is on keeping Josie happy and safe.
Why should a child need AF at all? It seems a lot of them do. Josie is far from being the only child in this world homeschooled and largely isolated from the outside. She has a real boyfriend, a boy her age named Ricky, who lives up the hill with his mother. They are closely related, but there is a sharp difference between them: Josie is “lifted”, Ricky is not. What this term means and what it has to do with Josie’s fragile physical health crops up and then becomes decisive.
Klara’s quiet life with Josie is troubled by a trip to town. It has multiple purposes: Josie will see her father (her parents are divorced) and visit an artist who is creating a portrait of her, while Ricky and his mother will come along to meet a man who can potentially change Ricky’s future.
The journey is a deluge of revelations about all of these characters that Klara finds almost overwhelming. Ishiguro always keeps us in Klara’s head, mainly through his skillful handling of her narrative voice, which is formal and almost childlike in its innocence.
We also sometimes see through her eyes, which seem to have a technical flaw that causes her view to disintegrate into something between pixelation and cubism when she is under stress, like in an unpleasant conversation: “She had coffee and me looked at the whole time until I found that the mother’s face filled six boxes of its own, and her narrowed eyes returned to three of them in a different corner each time. “
What Clare finds out about Josie and her family in town will lead to decisions that could be difficult for a person. The father asks her: “Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t just mean the organ, of course. I speak in a poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual? “
For Klara, programmed for loyalty and self-sacrifice, the answer is clear. For some of the people around her, it might be an open question.
The calmly breathtaking finale to Klara’s story made me feel a little like one of the first famous AFs, the tin man in The Wizard of Oz, when he said, “Now I know I have a heart because it’s breaking.”
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