Review: Piranesi

This review contains spoilers.

PiranesiI realised that the search for the Knowledge has encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unravelled, a text to be interpreted, and that if ever we discover the Knowledge, then it will be as if the Value has been wrested from the House and all that remains will be mere scenery.

Knowledge is the concept that lies at the heart of Susanna Clarke’s second novel Piranesi, a startlingly controlled follow-up to her 780-page fantasy classic Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The eponymous protagonist of this slim little novel inhabits a vast and largely empty House consisting of endless receding hallways filled with statues. The lower halls are flooded, and the clouds in the upper halls produce rain; Piranesi lives off the seaweed and shellfish he finds in the lower halls, and spends his time exploring the House and observing its seasons and the habits of the birds that dwell there. He believes that there are just 15 people who have ever lived, counting himself, the 13 skeletons he’s discovered in various parts of the House, and the Other.

The Other’s appearance on page 21 of the novel marks an important shift in the narrative: it’s the first time we really become aware that Piranesi doesn’t have the full picture; the first time that we, with our privileged frame of reference, know more than him. The Other has a smartphone, which Piranesi recognises only as a “shining device”; he wears a smart wool suit, a fact which jars against our understanding of the subsistence lifestyle Piranesi is scratching out in the House; and he mentions the word “Battersea”, which Piranesi doesn’t recognise at all, but which British readers will know as a landmark from our own world. In short, it’s fairly clear to us that the Other is lying to Piranesi for his own ends.

What those ends are becomes clear fairly quickly: the Other believes that the House can give him access to strange and mysterious powers if he can only find the right ritual to perform to make it happen. The passage I quoted at the start of this review sets out Piranesi’s musings when the Other enlists him in this search, and it illustrates one of the modes of knowing with which the novel is concerned: a mode in which knowledge is useful as a means to an end. It’s implicitly contrasted with the way that Piranesi approaches the acquisition of knowledge: he explores and observes the House for the sake of the knowledge itself, as an act of veneration and almost of worship. “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite,” Piranesi tells us.

It’s clear, I think, which mode of knowing Clarke thinks is preferable. The Other’s search for ultimate power makes him selfish (he doesn’t notice for almost a year that Piranesi’s shoes have worn out) and unable to appreciate the beauty of the House; and his erstwhile academic mentor, Laurence Arne-Sayles, who researches ancient rituals in order, similarly, to rediscover sources of power, is outright evil. Piranesi’s curiosity about the world, meanwhile, allows him to adapt to his environment and even thrive in it; it’s part of what helps him survive the trauma of being kidnapped and trapped in the House for years, a trauma he doesn’t even remember.

But this value system is complicated by the structure of the novel and the way Clarke takes advantage of our generic expectations. The shift in how much we know relative to Piranesi that happens when the Other enters the narrative essentially aligns us with the Other even as we start to suspect his motives, because he is a representative of our world and Piranesi isn’t; because the fact that he brings smartphones and wool suits and Battersea into the alien world of the House cues us to start reading the novel differently, as inhabitants of the real world rather than as fantasy readers plunged into an unfamiliar secondary world. We start reading it in the same way that the Other sees the House: not for its own sake, but in search of answers, to solve the puzzle of the House and of Piranesi’s place in it. Who is the Other, and why is he lying to Piranesi? Why does he never spend more than an hour in the House? Who is the mysterious 16 (the sixteenth person to enter the House) and why does the Other warn Piranesi away from them?

Clarke, it seems to me, deliberately encourages this mode of reading in her pacing, the way she gradually reveals just enough information to keep us wanting more without ever dumping enough for us to relax. The novel unfolds, in other words, like a thriller, propulsive and efficient, as we discover the House’s secrets and the magnitude of the events that led Piranesi there. The world that Clarke builds in it has a spectacular ruined grandeur, a misty beauty, but she doesn’t encourage us to linger in it as Piranesi does.

There’s also the problem that Piranesi’s open-mindedness is a direct product of trauma: he was essentially an entirely different person before he entered the House, and that person is now lost. And his absolute trust in the House leaves him open to the Other’s manipulation: he assumes that the Other has nicer stuff than he does because the House gives it to him, rather than realising that the Other has come from outside (although it’s not clear how much of this effect is down to the amnesia that the House induces in the humans who enter it). So although Piranesi’s search for knowledge for its own sake – which is specifically aligned with ancient modes of knowing and relating to the world – is philosophically preferable to the Other’s and Arne-Sayles’ search for power, I think part of the melancholy of Clarke’s story comes from the fact that Piranesi’s approach struggles to survive contact with modernity.

The novel, then, picks up on a theme prominent in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – that of the disenchantment of the world and the loss of wonder that modernity has brought in its wake. The twin protagonists of the earlier novel were engaged in the project of reenchanting their Regency milieu. Perhaps Piranesi, with his open-hearted kindness and generosity, can do the same for us.

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