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Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book: A tapestry of grief, love and servitude

Vineetha Mokkil | Updated on May 13, 2021

Close quarters: Readers introspect about friendship and parental love as Klara tries to find her footing in Josie’s world   -  ISTOCK.COM

Klara is an artificial friend, an android created for a specific human purpose. But what if she can feel and think like a human?

* In Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro observes the human condition with characteristic restraint

* Ishiguro reportedly finished work on the novel before the pandemic brought the world to its knees in 2020. Armed with a novelist’s omniscience, he seems to have managed to divine much of what was to come

* Privileged parents get their children ‘lifted’ via genetic engineering to amp up their academic potential

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I started reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel Klara and the Sun the week the second wave of Covid-19 exploded in Delhi. Dread blanketed the city like smog as terrible news started to pour in. Days became a blur. Nights were shattered by the apocalyptic wail of ambulances.

Never had I felt so acutely aware of the fragility of human life. As we the residents of the Capital city scrambled around in search of hospital beds, medicines and medical oxygen, as strangers bailed each other out while the system fell to pieces, as SOS messages flooded social media sites while the sick struggled to breathe, the vulnerability of the human condition was on full display as was our infinite capacity for cruelty and kindness.

Klara and the Sun / Kazuo Ishiguro / Faber and Faber / Fiction / ₹699

 

In Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro observes the human condition with characteristic restraint. The observant gaze is that of Klara — an Artificial Friend. This AF is an android designed to keep elite children company. Klara “watches everything so closely” right from the start of the novel when she is on display in a store. She runs on solar energy and gazes at the sun with a devotee’s reverence. The sun is as much an enigma to her as are the humans who come by to shop at the store.

Ishiguro reportedly finished work on Klara and the Sun, his eighth novel, before the pandemic brought the world to its knees in 2020. Armed with a novelist’s omniscience, he seems to have managed to divine much of what was to come. In the novel, children stay home and are taught exclusively by on-screen tutors. Well-off parents buy them androids and the machines keep them company and also play nursemaids.

The near future Ishiguro deftly builds seems an arm’s length away. The tomorrow he portrays does not seem fantastical. It comes across as a more alarming and slightly more skewed version of today. There is a deeply entrenched class system in Klara’s world. Privileged parents get their children ‘lifted’ via genetic engineering to amp up their academic potential. The procedure is not without risks. Josie, the little girl who takes Klara home as her companion, had an elder sister who lost her life after being ‘lifted’. As the narrative unravels, we learn that Josie is also critically ill because she underwent ‘lifting’.

Ishiguro recently pointed out on a podcast that he does not think of himself as a hardcore science fiction writer. His focus is not on the details of how Klara was built or the precise mechanics of the process of ‘lifting’. Just as in his previous novel, Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro is fascinated by the consciousness of beings who hover in a grey zone. Klara is a machine. An android designed for a specific purpose. Her job is to be Josie’s faithful companion. But what if she is capable of feeling and thinking like a human at times? Can a machine turn out to be more human than some humans? Love better? Feel more intensely? Sacrifice herself willingly for the greater good?

There are no explosive revelations in Klara and the Sun. Right from the start, the reader is told that Klara is an AF. It’s no secret that she is a machine. Later on, when Josie’s mother plans to use Klara as a vessel to ‘continue’ her daughter in the event of Josie’s death, that too seems to fit into the scheme of things. But the absence of secrets does not imply a lack of narrative tension.

With precise and poetic grace, Ishiguro conjures up a sense of suspense, a dread that will not dissipate, as Klara moves from the store to Josie’s house. He keeps the tone simple while grappling with complex themes. Human bonds come under the scanner. Friendship, parental love, filial love, romantic love — readers cannot but introspect about them as Klara tries to find her footing in Josie’s world and interacts with her family, hostile housekeeper, and friends. Questions about the future of an automated planet, the threat of climate change, inequality and the widening class divide, love, loss, memory, and the many shades of grief are all woven into the novel’s rich tapestry.

Servitude — the theme that animates Ishiguro’s masterpiece, The Remains of the Day, is a preoccupation in Klara and the Sun as well. Like the devoted butler in The Remains of the Day, Klara defines herself in terms of the role she has been handed. Her devotion to Josie and her desire to serve is absolute to the point of self-erasure. When Josie is on the verge of death, Klara offers to sacrifice everything for her sake. She is content to do her best for Josie and expect nothing in return. She feels obligated to serve. Nobody praises her for services rendered. Klara, however, just remembers the good times she shared with Josie. Unlike human love, her devotion remains constant. An Artificial Friend’s love is a love for the ages.

Vineetha Mokkil is the author of ‘A Happy Place And Other Stories’

Published on May 12, 2021

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