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Kazuo Ishiguro

Saturday 24 July 2021

I have just finished reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel Klara and the Sun. I find it a brilliant novel, absorbing and moving, and emblematic of Ishiguri’s superb skills as a novelist. I recommend Klara and the Sun warmly, but I don’t intend to review it here, but rather concentrate in more general terms on those technical skills of a great novelist.

To start with, a defining quality of Ishiguro’s work is that he creates worlds. Certainly, all novelists do that, but Ishiguri creates very particular kinds of worlds, in very coherent and convincing ways; and these worlds are profoundly different - from an English country house in the 1930’s in The Remains of the Day, to Dark Ages England in The Buried Giant.  And note that Ishiguro changes genre in each novel: for instance, When We Were Orphans is a kind of Famous Detective story, while The Buried Giant uses the fantasy/adventure form.  

Each of Ishiguro’s worlds is based, in essence, on a subjective viewpoint – they are the world of the principal character, who is very often the narrator. This means that each world is defined through the vision of an individual: we see vividly what the character chooses to see, and more significantly, what he or she values. A consequence of this is that we readers are aware that what we are shown is only part of the truth – the impact of The Remains of the Day, for instance, is because we become more and more aware that the butler Stevens does not really grasp what is actually happening around him. This gap between illusion and reality contributes powerfully to the narrative thrust of Ishiguri’s novels, as I will explore below.

The world of Klara and the Sun is defined by Klara, who is the narrator. Klara is in fact a robot, or rather, an AF or ‘Artificial Friend’. In the future world of the novel, just some few decades into the future, artificial intelligence has advanced enormously, and AFs are actually very life-like androids, designed to be ‘a child’s best friend’. In the very first sentence, we learn that Klara is “new”, and that she is still learning about everything around her: her programming, it appears, includes great skills of observation, and an unusual capacity to infer feelings and motivations in human beings. This means that we receive vivid and precise physical descriptions, coupled with carefully worked-out analysis of how other characters behave – but much of the larger world around Klara’s miniature world remains obscure, and we only work out this important general background through subtly-placed clues and hints.

Which takes us to a second defining quality: Ishiguro’s skill as a teller of stories. I have long believed that the key skill for a story-teller is knowing what not to reveal, and then exactly when to reveal. As I have already indicated, Klara’s world begins limited, and gradually expands – and as she learns more, so do we the readers. Klara’s initial innocent ignorance develops slowly into understanding and sympathy – and the reader’s involvement is thus created in parallel.

In addition, Ishiguro refuses to clutter up the narrative by giving ‘background briefings’. The novel is set in a future world, which evidently is based on significant technological advances, such as the ability to construct an android like Klara who in many ways functions exactly like a human being – but we are never really given any science-fiction explanations of the hardware. For instance, an important sub-plot concerns genetic engineering, but this is not clearly stated until page 247, even if there have been clues beforehand. Ishiguro maintains a rigorous focus on the real point of the story, which is about relationships between people, love and betrayal, hope and despair – and the sci-fi foundation is merely a mechanism to create a certain kind of emotional world.

The third defining quality of Ishiguro, I suggest, is his elegant handling of understatement: he always suggests, he never lectures. As I have already suggested, his handling of the subjective worlds of his novels mean that we have to work out what’s really going on by inferring from subtle clues and details. The full meaning of the story only emerges if we have followed closely all of the twists and turns of the various relationships, as observed and interpreted by Klara as she struggles to understand human beings. The ending (don’t worry: no spoilers!) is the epitome of Ishiguro’s understatement – it is a matter-of-fact wrapping-up of the plot, but the low-key tone is itself what creates a profoundly poignant and moving effect.

And finally, yes, I think this is a novel that would work in class for English B HL students. The language is accessible: the range of vocabulary is not complicated, in general, and there is much easy colloquial dialogue. On the other hand, the novel is both relevant and challenging. The principal theme is about growing up within family relationships, and then there are the significant background themes concerned with genetic engineering and artificial intelligence, both of which are currently of growing importance. The challenge of the novel is everything suggested above – can students develop the reading skills to handle sophisticated narrative techniques? They will need to learn how to read intensively, and interpret the subtle clues in language and images… and then read extensively, and assemble the full complex world and argument. And hopefully, they will respond to the emotions inherent in this moving story.

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** You may wish to have a look at the page  Klara and the Sun  which introduces the novel as a literary work to be taught in class.

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