In my mind are all the tides, their seasons, their ebbs and their flows. In my mind are all the halls, the endless procession of them, the intricate pathways. When this world becomes too much for me, when I grow tired of the noise and the dirt and the people, I close my eyes and I name a particular vestibule to myself; then I name a hall. I imagine I am walking the path from the vestibule to the hall. I note with precision the doors I must pass through, the rights and lefts that I must take, the statues on the walls that I must pass.
Piranesi is a strange, wondrous, mysterious novel, the kind of book that makes me marvel that someone ever had the idea to write it, much less carried it out so that a reader like me could be moved and transported by it. By training and inclination I am (more or less) a realist; the two genres I always have the least success with reading are fantasy and science fiction. I gave up on Clarke’s earlier novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – not just gave up, but gave it up, donating it to the book sale after a couple of failed attempts to get into it. Now I wish I still had it, because if Clarke is good enough to make the weird world of Piranesi feel real to me, I trust her enough to try it again.
I’m not going to say much specific about Piranesi, mostly because it’s such an intricately delicate construction that describing or explaining it seems unlikely to do it justice – and might, worse, spoil its carefully unspooled revelations. Most of it takes place in a kind of labyrinth made up of halls and vestibules, populated with statues and skeletons and one solitary living person, the man we know, and who knows himself, only as ‘Piranesi’ – until we learn more about him, that is, and he too is brought to confront some elusive truths about himself.
The story of who he is and what he’s doing in this place is the novel’s central plot, and it has elements of an actual mystery, even a thriller, with clues and an investigation and a climactic face-off with a villainous antagonist. In a way it is even a horror story, or at any rate things about it are horrible. The oddity of Piranesi, though, is how beautiful Piranesi’s weird world is and how lovingly he studies and tends to it. It isn’t our world but it has things we are familiar with, including tides and sea birds and seasons, all of which are vividly evoked. Although Piranesi is essentially (we learn) a captive in this place, it’s not a story of suffering. He feels taken care of; in his isolation, he has created meaning through rituals and through relationships that are real and valuable to him. When the truth is revealed and he has to choose which world to live in, it’s not obvious where he will really be better off. Or, at any rate, the right choice may be obvious but it clearly comes with costs, with losses.
I wasn’t really sure what to think about Piranesi as I read it, partly because both Piranesi and his labyrinthine world are so captivating and partly because it takes the whole novel to really understand what is happening in it. It is a fantasy novel of a sort; it is perhaps a kind of parable; it may or may not be saying something about the imagination, or art, or religion, or mythology. I think it’s about freedom in some way – about whether a life can be a good one, for example, if it is lived under duress (even unknowingly), or whether a life stripped down to its bare elements might have a kind of purity that is some compensation for what has been taken away or sacrificed. It is about human needs, including for love, and the way they find outlets wherever they can. It is incredibly sad, but by the end it is also quietly hopeful.
Happily, other people have written smart things about it, including Teresa at Shelf Love, whose post was one reason I had made a mental note to read Piranesi for myself even though I thought it sounded a bit far out for me (which it is). I also appreciated Ron Charles’s review, and this one by Ilana Teitelbaum in the Los Angeles Review of Books – I don’t know the Narnia books well enough to make the connections she does, but I found them really interesting. The title of the novel of course tells us to make connections to Piranesi, who in turn was an influence on M. C. Escher: these allusions are good visual cues, but whether they help much with interpreting the novel I’m not sure. In any case, because Piranesi is at once so memorable and so enigmatic, I know it will linger with me for a long time.