Author Kazuo Ishiguro Explores Love, Loneliness And Connection In 'Klara And The Sun'

Mar 5, 2021
Originally published on March 6, 2021 8:40 am
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The author Kazuo Ishiguro has won many of the biggest literary awards, including the Nobel Prize in Literature. His books have been adapted into successful movies, like "The Remains Of The Day" and "Never Let Me Go." Well, his new novel returns to many of the themes from those earlier works. It's called "Klara And The Sun." And I asked Kazuo Ishiguro to describe the world where this novel takes place.

KAZUO ISHIGURO: Well, it's kind of slightly futuristic. And a lot of it takes place inside the head of Klara, who is a small AI girl robot created to keep teenagers from becoming lonely. And so we start inside her head. She's almost like a tabula rasa. She's in the store waiting to be bought, and the only thing she knows about the world outside is what she can see through the store's window, the street outside. And because she knows that she's something to do with loneliness, she studies what she can see out there in terms of human loneliness.

SHAPIRO: And when you began to envision this world, this story, did you always know that we would view it through Klara's experience, that she would be our narrator?

ISHIGURO: Yes, I did. But I didn't know that she was, like, an AI being.

SHAPIRO: Interesting.

ISHIGURO: It started off as kind of a story for young children - I mean, like, really young children, you know, like, for children, 5, 6. You know, I had just this tiny little story I thought would go well with illustrations. And so her genesis was really not like an android from sci fi. She was more like - you know, like a bear or, you know, a doll, or like an animal that doesn't know much about the human world. And so - and she keeps hold of that kind of very childlike sense of hope and the belief in goodness. The AI aspect came a little bit later when I was told by my daughter that there's no way I could use this story for children. I couldn't go anywhere near...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) It was just too dark? What was it?

ISHIGURO: Yeah, yeah. She said there's no way you're going near - I mean, my daughter, who was then in her mid-20s, was working in a bookstore, and she knew a lot about, you know, children's books. And she said, there's no way you're going near a child with that story.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: It's interesting to me that you describe this as a slightly futuristic world because you're very good at creating these worlds that are not science fiction in the sense of planets and monsters but that feel adjacent to the world we live in. What interests you about creating and exploring those kinds of spaces?

ISHIGURO: I suppose I'm not that interested in prophecy. I'm more interested in, like, a distorted version of our present. And so I do want these things to be kind of a distorted mirror reflection of what we have now, not some sort of prediction of what might be happening in the future.

SHAPIRO: And can you identify what the specific thing was that you wanted to mirror back? I feel like it has something to do with loneliness, with privilege. I mean, how would you articulate that?

ISHIGURO: Well, there are various things. But at the heart of this book - I mean, in a world in which big data, artificial intelligence, gene editing, all these scientific and technological breakthroughs are encroaching into our personal space, is there something changing about the way we relate to each other, even within a family? Is there - would the very nature of human love change? Will we actually start to regard each other differently because we have a different sense of what an individual is? So that's probably there in this book. That's the central thing that I'm asking.

SHAPIRO: Your novels often explore class in one way or another. I mean, in "Remains Of The Day," there's a very realistic English class divide. In "Never Let Me Go," there is a sort of underclass of human clones who are raised to be organ donors. And now this novel gives us a divide between artificial intelligence and living humans. Why do you think you keep returning to these themes?

ISHIGURO: I think I have been interested in hierarchies, probably, rather than - or caste systems. I mean, class, perhaps, is a slightly more nuanced and subtle term. And so in "Klara And The Sun," I mean, there is the division between machine and human. There's also divisions appearing between the human beings...

SHAPIRO: Right.

ISHIGURO: ...Because some have benefited. Some young people have benefited in childhood from gene editing, and others haven't. And Klara, as a being that's come to live with this family, the people - you know, the human beings don't quite know where to place her in that hierarchy, you know? Is she like a vacuum cleaner? Is she like a servant? Is she like a guest? Is she like another child in the family or another adult in the family? So there are these competing versions of hierarchy and class that have come into play in this world. I think, you know, it is very much a world in flux.

SHAPIRO: And why do you think you keep returning to these questions of hierarchy?

ISHIGURO: You know, so right from the - when I was a young guy and I was writing "The Remains Of The Day," you know, I had this idea - it's like a big metaphor, if you like - that we were all like servants. We were all like butlers.

SHAPIRO: Every one of us?

ISHIGURO: Yeah. Every one of us, yeah, apart from, you know, a few people who have managed to become presidents of countries...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

ISHIGURO: ...Or whatever, you know? Most of us, we try and do our jobs to the best we - you know, the best we can. We're not satisfied with just kind of eating and breeding and then dying, you know?

SHAPIRO: We need to serve a function, some higher purpose.

ISHIGURO: Exactly. Yeah. So that's - so I often look at people within some sort of a system or hierarchy that they don't quite perceive.

SHAPIRO: It seems that the question Klara is continuing to ask in this novel, that you have continued to ask in many novels over many years, is what makes a person who they are. And I wonder if you keep asking that question because you are still searching for an answer yourself, or do you have one?

ISHIGURO: You know, I wouldn't deny that, Ari. But on the other hand, it sounds a bit general to say, you know...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

ISHIGURO: ...What makes a person what they are? I mean, (laughter) I think it's various aspects of, you know, what makes a particular person the way they are. I mean, when I was younger, I used to write books about people who meant well and tried awfully hard, but because they lacked perspective, they found out pretty late in life that they wasted their lives.

Latterly, probably in the last few books since "Never Let Me Go" - and "Klara And The Sun" will be like this - I mean, I think I'm looking at human beings who are caught inside a kind of - quite a cruel fate. You know, the backdrop is hard to escape. But the individuals within that landscape - they do their best to treat each other well and to live well and try to be decent in some kind of way. So in a sense, I feel as I've got older, my books have become more optimistic about human nature, even if the backdrop seems to have grown a little bit dystopian or pessimistic.

SHAPIRO: Kazuo Ishiguro, it's so good to talk to you about this new book. Thank you for joining us.

ISHIGURO: Thank you. It's been great to talk to you, Ari. Thanks.

SHAPIRO: His new novel is "Klara And The Sun."

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