Kazuo Ishiguro did not initially want to be a writer. He originally wanted to become a musician, going so far as to pursue an abortive career in the industry, only starting formal literature studies at university at the age of 20. Despite this late start, or perhaps of the unique perspective it — and his mixed Japanese-English heritage afforded him — Mr Ishiguro has risen to become one of the most successful contemporary novelists, receiving the Nobel Prize for his work in 2017.
Ishiguro’s novels have been praised as ‘of great emotional force’, and his latest work, Klara and the Sun, certainly lives up to this. Behind a deceptively simple plot about the titular ‘Klara’, a sapient robotic artificial friend who is at once startlingly perceptive and whimsically childish, and the sick human girl who buys her, is a deep, multifaceted plot that weaves together an array of the most pertinent questions there are, both modern and timeless, in a way few authors can. As trite as this phrase is, I would venture to call Klara an instant classic.
But what are some of these questions that I’ve mentioned? (And they are questions – Ishiguro does not seem to be one of the simple morals) A critical, age-old question would be the nature of love. Ishiguro demonstrates a nuanced understanding of this through the arcs of various characters and, as Klara relates at the novel’s closing, their meanings to each other, which are just as important. Through Josie’s relationship with her childhood best friend and love interest Rick, we see how competing goals and expectations can come in the way of people who love each other, the acceptance of which is part of life. Through Josie and Rick’s relationships with their mothers, we observe the fierce desire of parents to do their child right, even as this is strained by their dystopic and increasingly meritocratic world wherein the path to ‘success’ can clash with a child’s desires — and in Josie’s case, their wellbeing.
But the most interesting relationships in the novel, perhaps because of that inhuman element, are Klara’s – with Josie, she is a caregiver, friend, pet, purchase, and delivery woman; someone to lean on in troubled times, but, as Josie makes abundantly clear, certainly no substitute for ‘real’ human interaction. Klara adores Josie, and Josie loves her too, in a way, but near the end of the novel largely forgets her, treating her like a childhood toy to have reminisced over and cherished occasionally. Josie’s mother views Klara as a potential obedient, idealized substitute for her ailing daughter, in a dark contrast to Josie, but somehow also a parallel in how it reduces Klara to a role. When Klara discusses her perspective on human relationships and, implicitly, love, one wonders how much of her experience with her human household and the selfish, idealized perceptions they impose on one another is universal from Ishiguro’s perspective and how much of the story is simply a cautionary tale about genuine love not warding against toxicity.
Ishiguro also follows a long and established tradition of mimesis between dystopian fiction and contemporary society. Through subtle hints and snippets of conversation about the larger world intruding on Klara’s narrative, we get an intriguing glimpse of the story’s setting. Modern worries about the advancement of AI and the obsolescence of jobs are realized, leading to a large population of the ‘post-employed’, of which Josie’s father is a member. Also, provoke exciting questions about the search for meaning and the role of a dispossessed and purposeless population in giving rise to political extremism. Indeed, throughout much of modern history, societal and technological evolution has been ruthless and destructive. Ishiguro asks the question, ‘what happens when this stops being offset by new opportunities?’.
Ishiguro also examines fears around class, meritocracy, and biotechnology – already in modern society, many children are pressured to decide on their life’s trajectory rather prematurely and specialize as early as possible in a race of tuition sessions, extra courses, olympiads, and conferences, as they struggle to differentiate themselves from the rest in a scramble for educational and, eventually, job opportunities — despite the possible risks to their mental health and well-being. In the world of Klara and the Sun, genetic engineering allows children to be ‘lifted’ at a young age, a vague, never explicitly described process which becomes a near prerequisite for university entrance but which carries with it the risk of grave illness and even death. Rick, an unlifted child, stands outside this system and views it with some disdain – although Josie and his mother, with the help of Klara, both try to convince him otherwise. He disagrees that pursuing a university education and a career is worthwhile as he dislikes the fierce competition and pressure. By the end of the novel, he decides to pursue his projects in engineering simply for his fulfilment, without a degree or participation in society’s rat race. However, this chosen membership of a different ‘class’ essentially separates him from the educated Josie.
Laudably, Ishiguro does not use any of these novel aspects to push his views on the reader, making this an excellent subject for discussion with others. Though I have done my best to do Klara and the Sun justice in this review, I am, of course, no Nobel Laureate, and I highly encourage anyone who found even some of the elements of this interesting to give it a read, as it has something for everyone (unless you like fight scenes).
Written by Jack Sykes, NLCS Singapore