The Protagonist of “Klara and the Sun” is Less than Human. Greater than Human Too.
Remarkable, sensitive, and observant, Artificial Friend Klara is incapable of rage or self-pity, and thus it falls to us
Recently, a friend and I were on a mission to each purchase a copy of 1984. We were struggling to make sense of the world and where it’s headed in a handbasket. It’s best to have a physical copy in anticipation of the day 1984 is expunged from libraries and bookstores and even your e-book reader. Or perhaps “only” re-written with you being none the wiser.
Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute.
— George Orwell, “1984”
You never know, one day 1984 might be scorched off the face of the earth for posing an existential threat to a small and therefore “marginalised” group of people who do not as yet exist. Or perhaps it will be banned for the crime of causing its readers minor discomfort by alluding to some objectionable social mores of the late 1940s when it was first published. That’s why they burnt all the books in Fahrenheit 451, wasn’t it, discomfort?
“No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive. And the three-dimensional sex-magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time … .”
— Ray Bradbury, “Fahrenheit 451”
At the bookshop, it was impossible to ignore the front-and-centre stacks of Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest book Klara and the Sun. The cover is a gorgeous sun-drenched scarlet, buttery yellow and sky blue; it’s rather pretty for a book about a dystopian future. Ishiguro recently won the Nobel Prize for literature, and he’s among my favourite novelists, yet I was hesitant. (And not just because I find hardback copies pointlessly bulky and expensive.) I’m a disloyal sort of reader at the best of times, you see. I’m not typically interested in an author’s entire oeuvre; I feel it’s exceedingly unlikely all of it will resonate. You can’t step into the same river twice, et cetera. For another thing, I was still licking my wounds after the deplorable The Buried Giant.
I often joke that “buried giant” is both a description of the book’s dimensions and instructions for its disposal. (I’m yet to get so much as a titter.) I’m a big fan of consigning bad books to the dump, which was the fate of this book and Oryx and Crake (don’t get me started on that dreck). And there’s also the matter of that Spawn video cassette I patiently unravelled as a child to ensure it didn’t singe off third-place digits in any would-be scavenger’s IQ. Yes, I too question the wisdom of enacting revenge against bad art by destroying its physical manifestation. (I’m going to assume you understand the difference between recycling a dead tree and the concept of book burning.)
Vague, plodding, tedious, and amorphous, The Buried Giant owes this to Ishiguro’s desire to write about the nature of human conflict in general, explaining his unwillingness to give the story a proper setting. For example, if he had written about the Balkan Wars, readers might have perceived the book as purely a commentary on that one slice of history. Hence, the use of the Dark Ages as a “blank historical space”. (You can read more about the justification for the book’s nebulous setting in this interview.) Unfortunately, art is about making the specific universal.
I flipped to a random page of Klara and the Sun—heck, I’ll sometimes read the last line of a new book for kicks—to read a passage out of context. In it, Klara observes a nasty fistfight between two taxi drivers. She points this out to a character I assumed to be human who tells Klara nothing’s amiss and that the drivers were only playing. At this point, thoroughly intrigued, I tucked the book under my arm and headed to the counter to purchase it, along with 1984 and Pain (a book on pain perception which I’d entirely forgot about until just now).
I thought that Klara and the Sun was a story about humans gaslighting a robot, a concept I found utterly fascinating (someone should write that). However, the book isn’t about that; rather, the character “correcting” her is Rosa, another artificial intelligence though one without Klara’s prodigious capacity for empathy. As with most books about artificial beings, Klara and the Sun explores what it means to be human, or more specifically, one unique person.
While the other Artificial Friends stare fixedly into the distance, Klara people-watches from the window display. She studies humanity’s emotional topography, including the places where joy is girt by sorrow. A lesser writer would have rushed the pre-story psychology of solar-powered Klara living out her early days in the department store. Ishiguro, however, takes pains to make us appreciate that Klara is uniquely sensitive and observant. He also reminds us that children are capricious, given to breaking promises. Most importantly, he reveals to us that Klara hasn’t the capacity for anger:
“I tried to imagine me and Rosa getting so angry with each other we would start to fight like that, actually trying to damage each other’s bodies. The idea seemed ridiculous, but I’d seen the taxi drivers, so I tried to find the beginnings of such a feeling in my mind. It was useless, though, and I’d always end up laughing at my own thoughts.”
― Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun
Klara’s inability to rage or even to rankle with injustice means we must do this on her behalf. I used to think I well understood Chekhov’s advice, “If you want to move (the reader), be colder”. No one wants to veer off into comical melodrama, the overly sentimental and maudlin. Further, I reasoned, it must be a matter of juxtaposition, such as when soaring, expansive music plays as a character’s life draws to an untimely close in a film. The chasm between what’s possible and longed for and the cold, hard facts of reality acting as the sprinkling of salt on the proverbial wound.
I think I’ve finally hit the nail in the head after finishing Klara and the Sun. If words have the patina of pathos, if they communicate more than the plain, unvarnished facts of a tragedy, then the reader’s emotional burden is lighter for being shared. Everything spoon-fed and pre-packaged rather than wrung out from our sorrows. Klara and the Sun is an exemplary case because the eponymous character is utterly lacking in self-interest. Klara hasn’t the capacity for self-pity, so we feel not only sympathy for her, but we feel for her. Literally.
Is there a name for this genre? I’m talking about stories where humanity and its various follies—our selfishness, shallowness and callousness—are thrown in sharp relief by a non-human sentient creature, steadfast, loyal, resolute, epitomising all that’s most admirable about the human spirit. Hans Christian Andersen’s brave tin soldier comes to mind. Klara is a plaything too, I suppose, a toy to keep children company for as long as they should need it. (And mothers, considering how easy one can draw a parallel to Spielberg’s A.I. and its boy-android seeking out the Blue Fairy in much the same way that Klara chases the setting sun.)
Like the piteous Gregor Samsa crawling into the kitchen to hear his sister play the violin in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Klara is less than human but more than human, too. Purer, worthier. At one stage, a character as invested in survival as the concept is foreign to Klara admits to envying the android’s lack of feeling. How easy that must be. Klara considers this and replies:
‘I believe I have many feelings. The more I observe, the more feelings become available to me.’ She laughed unexpectedly, making me start.
‘In that case,’ she said, ‘maybe you shouldn’t be so keen to observe.”
― Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun
Often, Klara cannot put a name to her feelings. Instead, she flashes back to a situation similarly suffused with dread. Ishiguro also employs a masterful technique to illustrate how Klara grapples with ambiguity: where a person’s eyes simultaneously betray fear, rage, and sadness, she sees them in three separate boxes, so difficult are they to reconcile into a cohesive whole. Boundary/edge detection is a fundamental aspect of computer vision and it’s put to great use metaphorically such as when the bowed and pressed together heads of three cliquey girls are momentarily perceived by Klara as one entity, like some sort of beast of yore.
At other times, Klara fails to react with revulsion in the face of the twisted and morally repugnant, heightening the horror the reader experiences. Klara’s innocence and endless acceptance stand in stark contrast to the human characters’ coldness which is, for the most part, feigned in a bid to protect themselves. As such, we feel even more pity for them—their warring hearts and brittle hardness.
“We’re both of us sentimental. We can’t help it. Our generation still carry the old feelings. A part of us refuses to let go. The part that wants to keep believing there’s something unreachable inside each of us. Something that’s unique and won’t transfer. But there’s nothing like that, we know that now. You know that.”
― Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun
Klara’s quest is poignant because it frightens and imperils her; she is far from indestructible, far from insensate or insensitive. It takes its toll. What’s most touching about Klara is her optimism and bravery. She believes in the power of love everlasting and in her ability to perform an impossible feat—if only she tries hard enough. Klara is much like Oscar Wilde’s nightingale bleeding out on a rose thorn to dye it red for the sake of the fickle suitor whose equally fickle lady cares not for white roses, and tomorrow, will not care one whit for her suitor, nor he for her.
Only “capricious” perhaps isn’t the right word for we fallible and inconsistent humans. After all, no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.
I hope this review has piqued your interest. If you’ve read the book, I’d say the choice of the final interaction was masterful in proving its thesis—what do you think?
Edited 14th October 2021 to add: The dystopia Ishiguro paints reminds one of vaccine coercion & Nazi Germany's "Law Against Overcrowding in Schools and Universities". Artificial intelligence used to create an unemployed underclass, with only the bureaucratic Elite exempt, is likely just as prescient…