Two unrelated books
By Trevor Moore
Alexandria, Edmund Richardson, Bloomsbury, 978-1-5266-0381-4, 328pp
Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber & Faber, ISBN 978-0-571-36488-6, 307pp
There is no connection between these two books that I can think of: the first is a story about an eighteenth-century Englishman in Afghanistan and India, and the second is by an Englishman with a Japanese name (Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki and went to the UK in 1959). So, perhaps that’ the connection – there’s an Englishman involved in both books. I had ambled into Moruya Books a couple of weeks ago and was immediately taken by the cover of the Edmund Richardson book. Alexandria, the title, suggested that there might be much to learn about this fabled Egyptian city which was founded in 331BCE by Alexander the Great. It is famous for its library that was burned when Julius Caesar was besieged there in 48BCE. The cover shows what is described as “the fragmentary colossal head of a youth” apparently courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I decided I needed to know more about Alexandria than the fact of its erstwhile library and I picked it up.
Of course, as any reader of my book reviews will know, I am unable to buy but one book in a bookshop. I needed a second one – to keep Alexandria company, you understand. Julie was quick to thrust into my hands the Ishiguro book saying that she hadn’t read it but that she thought I should. I am not sure that’s a good reason for investing in reading material, but Ishiguro must be good because he is a Nobel prize-winner. He has published eight novels, including this one, as well as screen plays and shorts stories and the lyrics for several songs performed by the American jazz singer, Stacey Kent. I have to confess that I had only read The Remains of the Day (1989) which was adapted for the silver screen in 1993 and that starred Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Both book and film were brilliant, so I had high hopes for Klara and the Sun, his ninth novel.
But back to Alexandria. Edmund Richardson is Associate Professor of Classics at Durham University, and the sleeve notes say that “he’s fascinated by characters on the edge of most histories”. The subject of this book is not really Alexandria at all, or at least only peripherally. The book is essentially a biography of a man called Charles Masson … at least that’s the name he took after deserting from the army of the East India Company. His name when he deserted was James Lewis. He was recruited by an American adventurer called Josiah Harlan to an expedition to overthrow the then regime in Kabul. As Australian and US troops withdraw from Afghanistan as we speak, one wonders about the history of that country. Richardson’s book is a fascinating tale of adventure. Richardson admits that no one really knows the truth about Masson; even Masson’s biography is full of distorted facts and downright lies. But he was a great archaeologist and he lived and travelled in Afghanistan for several years in the 1830s. He discovered that when Alexander the Great went around conquering people, he caused a city to be built wherever he went. As a result, there are – or were – many Alexandrias. This book tells an extraordinary story and is almost as different from Klara and the Sun as it is possible to be.
Klara and the Sun is Ishiguro’s first book since winning the Nobel prize in 2017. It is not clear exactly where the novel is set. Ishiguro’s prose is so sparse that one gets an almost Scandinavian feel. But the setting is old world rather than new. The Klara in the title is not a human. She is an artificial friend – or AF – who is solar-powered and purchased as a companion for the human hero, Josie. Josie is suffering from some chronic ailment that we are not told much about, and Klara takes it upon herself to save Josie from the effects of this ailment.
The novel is an exploration of how an artificial intelligence might interact with humans and, in particular, the degree to which an emotional attachment might form. There is an underlying theme of genetic modification though it is not developed. Ishiguro deals with this cleverly: on the one hand he could be foreseeing an emotional capability in the robot of the future, but it is equally possible to put Klara’s actions down to clever programming. We become aware that AFs process images differently to humans: they see things a set of boxes that are not well-connected. I wasn’t clear at first why Ishiguro had done this, but as I read on it was clear that this was way of describing the difference between an AF and a human.
The novel has been described as a “masterpiece” by at least one reviewer. Perhaps I am more restrained: it is, without doubt, a good book with an interesting story and characters that make the reader think. Ishiguro’s writing is sparse and the dialogue in the book is often naïve but this works given the subject matter. But I think that the epithet “masterpiece” can be applied only after a passage of time has passed and I think this is a book for today. In 50 years, if anyone read it, they might be amused by the assumptions about artificial intelligence.
I do not, however, want to seem unduly harsh. This is a book worth reading. And so too is Edmund Richardson’s Alexandria though you may not want to read them one after the other, as I did. But both books have something to tell you and what they tell you is worth hoisting on board.