It takes patience to read Ishiguro. Slowly, and carefully, as if trying to pull off a bandaid, he tells the readers a story and deepens their awareness of existential themes revolving around human nature, their inherent flaws, their fragility, and the transitoriness of life.
In Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro has created another remarkable narrator along the lines of Stevens from The Remains of the Day, Ryder from The Unconsoled, and the boatman from The Buried Giant. Klara, an Artificial Friend, designed to keep company to homeschooled children, has unusual observational powers. Through her lenses, readers can observe the human kind through a grid of highly revealing shapes and colours. Just like Axl and Beatrice tread carefully through the mist in The Buried Giant, so does Klara progress cautiously on her journey to fulfil her destiny as an AF. The story is set in the future US, where technology has advanced rendering many people ‘post employed’ i.e. redundant, and the society is split along clear class lines, whereby the so-called ‘lifted’ (genetically optimised) ones are on the top. This is the general social backdrop that can be glanced trough Klara’s rather narrow focus.
We first meet Klara on display in a department store window, where she spends her time soaking up the Sun’s replenishing ‘nourishment’. Her powers of observation and ‘appetite for learning’ distinguish Klara from the rest of the AFs in her store. Even her very name refers to her clarity of vision and brightness of ideas. It is this very quality that attracts a sickly teenager named Josie and her mother, who take Klara to their home in the country. From the very first introduction of Josie, it is obvious that her health is quite fragile and that there is more to Klara’s role than just development of Josie’s social skills. Nevertheless, Klara is convinced that she can help Josie get better, and by the end of the novel, it seems that it is Klara’s hope that ultimately prevails.
Love and Loyalty
Klara’s loyalty and ultimate sacrifice is reminiscent of Stevens’ quiet obedience. As Josie grows weaker, Klara beseeches the Sun for ‘special nourishment’ for Josie and, in her perception of the Sun as a caring and benevolent deity, makes an offering to appease ‘him’. Eventually, Klara makes a sacrifice that affects that most precious and unique aspect of her – her cognitive abilities, however, she continues her existence in silence and Josie never learns of the extent to which Klara had gone in order to ensure her wellbeing. Upon committing her ultimate sacrifice, her vision becomes blurry, her optical grid distorted, and the image that we get is a nightmarish echo of The Unconsoled.
Klara’s sensible voice is pure and precise. She observes human interactions and behaviours with a combination of scientific detachment and childish wonder. Her retelling of the events, including the way people refer to her (‘Or do I treat you like a vacuum cleaner?’) tell the reader a lot about the state of affairs in the humanity. Through Klara, we pick up bits and pieces of overheard conversations, references to ‘fascistic leanings’, attempts to replace deceased children with AI, the threat that the artificial intelligence represents (‘First they take the jobs’), all of which make this uncomfortably near future even more uncomfortable.
And finally, at the very end of the novel, Ishiguro returns to one of his most beloved topics: the nature of memory and the act of remembering. Klara’s days of service have come to an end, she is in a yard waiting to be either recycled or destroyed, and, like the boatman in The Buried Giant, she is arranging her memories, a process rendered far more challenging due to the sacrifice that she had done in order to appease the Sun and provide the ultimate service to her owner.
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