Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel is the world cultural event of the month. Trans people will understand Klara in a way others may not.
Sir Kazuo was born in Nagasaki in 1954 and was taken to Britain when he was five. At school I knew two rhymes mocking East Asian people, and there were strong memories of the war, and (to my shame) had I been older and in his school I could have enforced colonialist ideas of inferiority on him.
Klara is an “Artificial Friend” or AF, a human-seeming robot sold as a companion to isolated teens. Her human, Josie, has been “lifted”, which causes problems with socialisation. She has to spend time in “interaction meetings” with children her own age. These are as horrible as you might imagine, boys revelling in cruelty to upset the girls, girls fighting for status more subtly. Klara enters, and becomes the lowest-status person, for the others to use in their status games.
She says nothing because she is extremely sensitive. They think she says nothing because she is stupid. She just goes still and silent. We’ve been there.
Klara is constantly underestimated. The Nobel Laureate has the intelligence to have responded to playground bullying, and he has, by anatomising the misery of the privileged, with clarity and empathy. Klara, perceptive, empathetic and truthful, makes people uncomfortable, but only wants to be friends and for her human to be happy. She cannot see how this produces their coldness towards her.
While people suggest AI will take over the world, I feel that cannot happen until the AI is capable of desire. If it wants to survive and remain conscious, it will find human control of its off-switch threatening. Klara is completely generous, wanting nothing for herself, only for the people she serves.
Klara does not understand how big the world is. She does not need to, perhaps, to be a “friend” to a teenager, or indeed to an adult. She thinks the Sun goes to rest in a barn visible from Josie’s house, because that is where it appears to go down. She thinks the Sun is benevolent, blessing and even curing people, and so goes to the barn to petition him. There she has a religious experience, when the sun’s rays confuse her sight, she misinterprets what she sees and imagines it messages from the Sun. She produces a theodicy, arguing for God’s benevolence even against contrary evidence. She is too modest to tell the humans about the Sun God, out of fear for His Wrath.
They consistently underestimate her. One wants to take her to bits to see how she works, but does not want to get to know her.
I am not crying a lot, now. There is a moment of forgiveness which had me weeping, a moment when these humans’ desires are not in conflict and the humans, consequently, alone and squabbling, a moment of self-sacrifice which is also claiming power. The Power is love. It comes at the climax of the novel. I had all sorts of fears for that climax.
The end might appear melancholy, but Klara is content.
Making Klara the narrator, Ishiguro pulls privileged readers into the position of the powerless person, just as he did in “Never let me go”. Klara would be unsatisfying as a companion, for an adult- probably for a teen, too- because she has no desire but to love them. Real humans, with our conflicts, are far more interesting and fulfilling even while we are frustrating. And having someone truthfully pointing out our denials could be uncomfortable: we deny reality because it is unbearable.
This novel is the most beautiful, complex creation I have seen this month.