What are love and hope when viewed through artificial eyes?

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Faber, 307pp, Maruzen price: ¥2,255

“Hope,” according to American poet Emily Dickinson, “is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul.”

“Hope … Damn thing never leaves you alone,” says a character in “Klara and the Sun,” British author Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel since he was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature.

This character says the line to the protagonist, Klara, after she suggests a plan that she believes will help his chronically ailing daughter.

Who or what is Klara? Telling the story from Klara’s point of view allows Ishiguro to refrain from describing her beyond what other characters say about her. One talks about her hair making her look French, another about the “fabric” covering her body, another says, “Oh you darling robot!”

But if this is science fiction, it’s of the type more deeply interested in philosophy than technology. At the heart of this brisk, fast-paced novel is an exploration of the ideas of hope and love, souls and minds.

Klara is known simply as an AF (Artificial Friend). AFs are bought as companions for children by parents who can afford them. Each AF is unique, with Klara known for “her appetite for observing and learning.”

The presence of AFs makes it seem as if the story is set in the future — Ishiguro doesn’t explicitly state the time — but it feels like the near-future, even a version of the present, as the world Ishiguro describes is not too unlike the world we live in today. There are still paperbacks, taxis, people driving their own cars, people made redundant, beggars, pollution and oblongs.

“Oblongs” is the word Klara uses to describe smartphones and tablets, as when she observes people “press their oblongs” or hold one to their ear.

Klara’s spare narration asks the reader to make such deductions. Though the reader isn’t told where the story takes place, clues such as the way many of the characters speak reveal the setting as somewhere in the United States. Several times, these characters point out that a key character, Rick, speaks with a British accent and is English.

Another important character in the story is the Sun. For the humans, the Sun plays a passive role, but to Klara, the Sun is an active agent, the power source for AFs, giving life in more ways than one in her mind. With her limited view of the world, Klara personifies the Sun, saying just before sunset, “You must be so tired.”

Klara pins her hopes on the Sun. At one point, she talks to the Sun about love and how to prove it is there, a common theme in Ishiguro’s work.

“Perhaps the Sun may ask, ‘How can we be sure? What can children know about genuine love?’ But I’ve been observing them carefully, and I’m certain it’s true,” Klara says.

She makes her own deductions and like many of Ishiguro’s characters sometimes misinterprets situations, such as at first thinking the Sun sleeps in a barn she sees on the horizon.

Yet hope never leaves the optimistic Klara. It is in her soul. She believes she could have “achieved accuracy” in “portraying” a certain human, but she also has a moment of clarity on why it would not have worked out.

The reader will find out if she truly knows what love means.

— By Yung-Hsiang Kao, Japan News Staff Writer