Writers & Company

Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro on the emotional power of storytelling in a high-tech world 

The British novelist, screenwriter and musician spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about his eighth novel — one that looks at love and loyalty through the eyes of an android.
Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the most celebrated contemporary fiction authors in English. (Knopf Canada)

Kazuo Ishiguro's work ranges across genres, but it's characterized by its great emotional force. Love and loyalty are frequent themes. His latest novel, Klara and the Sun, has already been described as a masterpiece. Set in a not-too-distant future — a world of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering — it's a touching, imaginative exploration of what it means to be human.

Ishiguro's original passion was music. Born in Japan in 1954 but raised in England from the age of five, he aspired to be a singer-songwriter. But since publishing his first novel at 27, he's become one of the most honoured contemporary writers. His books The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go have been made into acclaimed films. In 2017 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and a year later he was knighted.

Ishiguro spoke to Eleanor from his home in London.

A naive, careful observer

"Outsider narrators have always been useful for novelists, for all kinds of reasons. They effectively act as chaperones into the fictional world for the reader. But for me, Klara is particularly interesting, because she doesn't bring any real baggage with her.

"If she had come from a different country, or if she'd come from a different planet, she would still bring the values of those places — and there'll be a comparison or clash between what she brings with her and what she observes in the human world. 

"One of the appealing things for me about Klara is that she turns up almost as a tabula rasa. She's like a baby, except she can learn much faster, in many ways. But she is unprejudiced and unbiased when she turns up. She's like an empty box that's rapidly filling up. 

One of the appealing things for me about Klara is that she turns up almost as a tabula rasa.

"I found that quite interesting. Because she's like that — she's empty and it's announced that she's a machine — I can focus her interest on exactly the themes that I want to talk about in my book. 

"I can pick and choose what she focuses on about the human world, to suit my purposes. I don't have to do all this backstory stuff. She's a naive outsider narrator — a strange, observing eye on humankind." 

Eleanor Wachtel has spoken to Nobel Prize for Literature laureate Kazuo Ishiguro four times for CBC Radio's Writers & Company. (CBC)

Of service and selflessness

"What interests me about human beings is the fact that, by and large, we're not content just to feed ourselves and get by and reproduce, and die. That isn't quite good enough for most human beings. We've got to be able to say that we contributed something, and to something larger than ourselves.

"Even if I'm a criminal, I still seem to have to say that I've been a 'good' criminal: 'I played by the rules. I was loyal to my gang members.'

"We have this strong urge, and that does fascinate me. At the metaphorical level, I think we are servants. 

"In life, most of us find ourselves in this position where we don't run huge corporations, or we're not presidents of countries. Most of us do our jobs. If we're fortunate, we have a fulfilling job. But most of us live in a small world, and we try and do our small jobs well. 

At the metaphorical level, I think we are servants.

"Because of this moral urge, the question becomes, What happens to our contribution? What happens to this little bit of work that we do in our small world? That question becomes very important to most people. We offer this thing up to something upstairs — whether it's literally upstairs, in our companies, or whether it's upstairs somewhere for a cause, or for the nation. 

"We offer this, our little contribution, up to something or somebody — and hope that this is part of something that we approve of."

Dedicated to my mother

"I don't think I was that conscious when I was writing Klara and the Sun that it had something to do with my mother. It was probably after I finished writing it that I thought, almost unconsciously, that a lot of my mother or what I observed about my mother had gone into the book. 

"It's partly because of the idea of the parental urge: Most of the time, it's a beautiful instinct in human beings. Even horrible people, you watch them around their children and you think they're wonderful. My mother was like that.

"Like many people of her generation — she was 92 when she died — she gave up her career to look after her children, which was the norm for middle-class Japanese women of her generation. The welfare of her children became all she ever thought about. 

"Almost every small or big decision that she had to make in life, day by day, I think she would always have questions at the back of her mind: 'What is the best thing for my children? What will protect my children? What would actually give them the best chance? Would this open up something new for my children? Is this going to make my children happy?'

"So having something that is literally a machine, obsessed with fulfilling this task — a rather sweet and beautiful machine like Klara — some of that came from what I knew, which is this kind of parental love and ambition on behalf of your child.

I don't think I was that conscious, when I was writing Klara and the Sun, that it had something to do with my mother.

"Also, as in Never Let Me Go, where the lifespan of the characters in some way stands for the longer human lifespan, Klara goes from baby to child to teenager to parent to, I think, an elderly person, when she's not needed anymore. And I think perhaps, without realizing it, I put a lot of my emotions about my own mother in her later years into those passages."

Kazuo Ishiguro's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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