Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Publishing Date: March 2, 2021
Pages: 320 (Hardcover)
What sets Kazuo Ishiguro’s literature apart from many other novelists—apart from the Nobel Prize that Ishiguro won in 2017—is the deep undercurrent of love and separation which moves through the narratives, in a way which refuses to become shipwrecked on either the shoals of despair or sentimentality. This pervasive presence of love and its animating work in our lives is, I think, one of the most pervasive facets of his writing, and one reason why readers continue to be drawn to his work, whether he writes an English period piece, a dystopian love story, or—in the case of his most recent work—a science fiction pastoral. Love, in Ishiguro’s rendering, appears to the reader like a waterfall on the far side of a deep gulley, so that if we stretch ourselves far enough out over the abyss, we can feel the spray of the water from the far shore as it cascades into someone else’s mouth. Love in Ishiguro’s work is felt both in its presence and in its absence, always around the corner, behind the curtain, elusive and tragic.
This dual pull of desire and frustration is what drives forward the slow drama of Remains of the Day, as the household staff teem with desire restrained by propriety, and in Never Let Me Go, as teenagers grapple with the contradictions of young libido and unspeakable destinies which will prevent them from living more than a servile life. Love comes to us as a powerful and frequently frustrated passion, restricted by a world carved up into social classes which pull us apart. While the latter novel is more classically designated as “dystopian”—occurring in a future world in which clones are raised to be organ donors—it is less the technological aspects of Ishiguro’s novels which contribute to this dystopia than this persistent gap created by love’s suffering. Love bubbles up through the cracks, pools at our feet, and disappears when the powerful heat of societal expectation sends it back underground.
In Ishiguro’s most recent Klara and the Sun, we are given the story of Klara—an advanced Artificial Intelligence robot known as an Artificial Friend (AF)—who is bought to be the companion of the 14-year-old Josie. Klara is brought to a new home, where she and Josie develop a friendship. Josie is frequently sick and it is Klara who both learns to attend to Josie well, and over time, begins to concoct a plan for Josie’s salvation, enlisting Josie’s friend and would-be love interest, Rick, to help. Klara’s special skill is one of attention and mimicry, picking up on small details of how people interact with one another, raise their eyebrows, walk favoring a bad hip. But her attention to detail as an AF is frequently impaired by lack of context. As a solar-powered robot, she believes the sun to be sentient, a benevolent being who bestows life upon Klara and all whom the sun encounters; when Josie falls sick, she mistakenly assumes that a street maintenance machine is to blame.
It is this attention—both when rightly calibrated and when devoid of context—which run the plot. Josie falls sick frequently throughout the novel, and it is Klara who is able to scan her and know that something is wrong, though she thinks perhaps it is a lack of connection to the sun. The same attention which causes Klara to make a significant sacrifice on Josie’s behalf is hampered by Josie not knowing what role the street maintenance machines are playing in this world. It is because of Klara’s intimate knowledge of Josie’s movements, heartrate, and mannerisms that Klara becomes both a valued companion to Josie, and also the target of manipulation by the adults vacantly orbiting Josie.
Over time, this attention—the core characteristic of Klara—grows into love for her ward. In Simone Weil’s famous essay in which she links together the attention we give to study and the life of prayer, it is through paying attention that we learn to love God, Weil argues. And in this way, as Klara pays attention to Josie—in Josie’s good health and bad, in Josie’s adolescent tantrums and in her quiet moments of affection—Klara begins to love Josie as her friend. And in that love, Klara begins to formulate a plan to rescue Josie from her sickness, a plan born out of love but limited by Klara’s knowledge of the world.
The attention which Klara pays to Josie, which leads her to know Josie intimately, also causes Klara to misunderstand the wider world which is hurting Josie. And so, Klara fails to see that there is another form of attention in play here in Josie and Klara’s world: attention in order to control. Klara’s attention and intimate knowledge of the frail and sick Josie has not gone unnoticed by the adults in Josie’s life who want to use Klara’s loving attention for their plan to overcome Josie’s frailty. These adults are frequently depicted as caring for Josie, but rarely as intimately involved with her. Much of the time, the adults are concerned with their advancement or with their children’s success, with love, something which happens indirectly or by accident, but not as the primary concern.
Without giving away the plot points, what emerges through the novel is a beautiful meditation on the ways in which love and attention come together. To love someone well is to learn their ways, not that you might control them, but that you might know what they need and what is harming them. But the same attention which enables us to love well is a limited quality: one cannot pay attention to everything well, and so, there will be parts of the world which the one who would know love of this kind will be ignorant of. The lover will be naïve to the power of these malevolent forces if only because the threatening power of these forces cause no fear for the one who loves.
These malevolent forces that thwart love in Ishiguro’s work are frequently classist forces: the servant status of The Remains of the Day, the subordinate state of the tragic clones in Never Let Me Go, the subordinate fate of the AFs to their petty humans in Klara. Love can never overcome a world in which class sets itself up to use that love to its advantage, milking affection for every bit of obedience it will render. In Klara, the role of class is married to technology: Klara may love Josie and want to give herself endlessly for her, but Klara is in the end a being who is controlled, a being with ball bearings and programming limits. It does not take much imagination to extrapolate from this vision to the way in which our own technological media both enable our relations while simultaneously limiting and framing the way in which we can relate to others. Technology gives love and takes away love; blessed be the name of technology.
And yet, love emerges anyway. As subject as Klara is to the restrictions of her technological composition and to the intentions of adults, Klara’s love still finds a way. Anyone who has read Ishiguro knows that the ones who fall into this love will extend themselves over the abyss to taste from love’s cascading waterfall, with the outcome of this risk less than certain. But even if love is ultimately unattainable in all the ways that we wish in Ishiguro’s novels, love explodes categories, defies expectations, and ultimately, positions us toward the sustaining sun even in the face of defeat.
Love, in Ishiguro’s novels, deeply satisfies and fills, sustaining characters as they face what might otherwise appear to be bleak futures. It is this that haunts the reader the most: that love is not diminished by the suffering which the protagonist undergoes, but rather, it is only love which remains, even when the object of that love is lost. The water keeps on flowing, across the vast chasm, and we will always risk falling into the chasm to just have a taste.