Piranesi  – ★★★★
Piranesi is a new fantasy novel by the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell . This time, we have a diary-like narrative and our narrator observes, records and catalogues a curious World around him – the House. In the House, architectural splendours meet natural wonders – sea Tides, bringing marine life and vegetation, often flood the seemingly infinite number of opulent Halls, where numerous enigmatic statues of all sizes daze and confuse. Our narrator’s only human contact is the man only known as the Other, who also often frequents the Halls and who sees the World very differently from our narrator. Then, cryptic messages start to appear in some Halls, and our narrator witnesses strange visions. What other mysteries does the House hold, and is there really a Sixteenth Person who may be residing in the Far-Distant Halls? These are the questions that start to bother our narrator as he is slowly forced to question the very nature of his existence in this bewildering World of Tides and Architectural Beauty. In Piranesi, Susanna Clarke invented one mysterious, otherworldly place whose pull is irresistible, powerful and inescapable, and whose charm works like magic, saturating the reading experience with endless wonder, delight and fascination. Amidst all the watery and architectural beauty, though, there is a want for slightly more meaning and depth, and it is unfortunate that the second part of the book falls into some very familiar and overused literary “thriller” tropes.
The book opens with passages of beauty and wonder. From the very first sentence, Susanna Clarke invites the reader to discover and explore the new World filled with mystery and dreamy vistas. There is simply no end to the uncanny beauty and fascination that the sentences evoke. “When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of three Tides. This is something that happens only once every eight year” [Susanna Clarke, 2020: 3], begins the narrator. Through this person who carefully records his experience of the World around him, we soon learn of the Drowned Halls and Derelicts Halls, of mysterious Vestibules and Passageways “peopled” by hundreds of exotic human-like Statues, and of other wonders of the House. What is the meaning and the origin of this World, though? Many questions are left unanswered (for now), and the wait for answers is bittersweet.
Our own narrator employs a Robinson Crusoe-style narrative and documents zealously and meticulously everything he sees. With him, we marvel at the unexpected and view how the force of Tides and the shining of Stars intermingle with the beauty of Statues – all seem to be in unison and speaking their own secret language. There is a lot to take in here for both the narrator and the reader, but once we are used to all the terminology, the journey is easier. The scientific cataloguing of wonders reminds of the work of Belgian comic artists François Schuiten & Benoît Peeters, who also mix wonderfully the imaginative and the wondrous with the academic and the scientific inquiry. Also, as in Jonathan Strange, Clarke’s penchant for academic referencing, scientific documentation and meticulous recordings provide certain eerie authenticity to the seemingly impossible world she describes.
The whole World or the House in Piranesi and the situations arising may even be viewed as an allegory on human life and society, with people constantly seeking something beyond their reach and understanding. There is an allegory on the immensity of life and things in it, and how the human mind is simply not capable of grasping or even fathoming all or every knowledge or thing that may (or may not) exist. The world remains incomprehensible, and its mysteries – unreachable: “The Other believes that there is a Great and Secret Knowledge hidden somewhere in the World that will grant us enormous powers once we have discovered it” [Susanna Clarke, 2020: 8], says the narrator. Susanna Clarke plays with absurd situations in her book, trying to contrast meaningfully the themes of understanding and ignorance, and memory and forgetfulness. Spoiler Alert (highlight to read): There is probably even an attempt by Clarke to evoke the infamous “allegory of the cave” in her book – this allegory concerns Socrates who tells of a group of people chained to the wall of the cave and who face a blank wall. They believe all their lives that the shadows on the wall they see are “real life” (when these are only one type of the representation of it).
As for similarities between Jonathan Strange and Piranesi, there are common themes of the spiritual world, the pursuit of dark and mysterious knowledge, and both books also share one similar theme revolving around the inability to see the picture/life clearly for some reason – “clouded perception”. Spoiler Alert (highlight to read): The greatest similarity must also be the relationship between the two main characters in both books – there is the same “older man vs. younger man” juxtaposition, whereby the older man exercises considerable influence and dominance over the younger one. At some point, both also have this fierce friend-turned-foe relationship.
In Piranesi, the World that is the House may be infinite, plentiful, wondrous, all-knowing, but Susanna Clarke is only human and we see the limits of her imagination and even plot holes in the book. Like Morgenstern’s The Night Circus , the book sometimes hinges on all the beautiful descriptions only, and in this elusive World of flooded Halls, we desperately need more substance, psychology and depth, including characters, plot and theme-wise. Perhaps the world described by Clarke necessitates a bigger and deeper book. The direction that the book takes half-way through is also questionable, with random ideas snowballing to result in something almost banal.
Piranesi is like a literary enigma which provides this endlessly mysterious journey into the unknown. No other author but Susanna Clarke can mix scientific, academic rigour with the unbelievable and the unimaginable, and then have an unputdownable book as a result. Even though Clarke’s world is bewildering and utterly absorbing, there is no escaping this feeling that, at least plot and character-wise, somewhere there in Piranesi hides a much better or rather “greater” book – some true fantasy classic that will now never see the light of day. Seeing it in this light, the book Piranesi is like a beautiful statue in one of the Halls in the World that never had (and never will have) its opportunity to come out of the muddy waters that flood the Vestibules and breathe its first “breath” of life.
Since Piranesi is a dark fantasy with elements of mystery and thriller, I am counting my reading of it towards the Readers Imbibing Peril Reading Challenge for this year.