OCTOBER 18, 2020
SUSANNA CLARKE FIRST BURST on the stage with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in 2004 on a wave of advertising fueled in part by comparisons to Harry Potter. However, while both stories are set in England and are about magic, the similarities end there: Jonathan strange presents a complex, dark and enigmatic world that Harry Potter is not. Although it begins with a light satire of English society and universities, Clarkes’ epic of English magic accompanies the reader on a journey into ever darker realms of enchantment. There is no heartwarming magical system to explain the unknown, nor an anointed hero to eradicate the darkness.
Clarkes Short Stories, featured in his 2006 collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories, deserve equal attention. Without the density that can do Jonathan strange sometimes intimidating, the tales Ladies of Grace Adieu hold the same incantatory enchantment. Clarke stands out as a fantastic writer because of his use of language, which sings on the page. His phrases evoke magic more effectively than a system ever could.
In Piranesi, Clarke turns away from familiar ground. Instead of another Regency England, Piranesi takes place nowadays down to the minute, or at least the late 2010s. But while Clarke has always woven mystery into her enchanted worlds, there may be nothing more mysterious about her creation than the house in which the protagonist of Piranesi Finds himself. Its vast rooms, its abundant ecosystem, and above all, the statues which represent various concepts and mythological figures make up a universe in miniature.
The plot creates a separate and more intrusive mystery than the setting: a man who is clearly of our world lives in the House, with no memory of who he is or how he got there. Piranesi’s only friend is a man he calls the Other, who also gave him his name. The Other meets Piranesi twice a week, asks him questions and types notes on a shiny device that the reader will instantly identify. It is understood that Piranesi helps the Other in his quest for powerful ancient knowledge, which the Other believes the House contains.
Meanwhile, Piranesi spends his days making discoveries about the House and how it works. The house is flooded in places and has a tidal system that Piranesi has painstakingly memorized. He figured out how to survive on dried seaweed and fish, and how to navigate rooms so huge and complex that the Other calls them a labyrinth.
Piranesi is, at first glance, a blank slate, without a past and without a name. But, from the start, we are introduced to its most predominant qualities: scientific curiosity which leads him to explore and catalog his discoveries and empathy. This last quality is mentioned on the first page, in a description of the statue of a woman carrying a beehive. From this, Piranesi writes, One Bee always gives me a slight uneasy feeling that creeps over his left eye.
Thus, we get an early glimpse of his character and character is essential in this man with no past.
The piranesi’s main relationship is not with the Other, nor with the intruder in the Chamber who arrives to disturb their serenity. Piranesi’s main relationship is with the House, and we quickly realize that this relationship is a spiritual relationship. He writes: The beauty of the house is immeasurable; his infinite kindness.
Spirituality and belief systems are of central importance Piranesi. This may not surprise anyone who has noted the epigraph, by CS Lewiss The Magician’s Nephew (the sixth book in its Narnia series), or noted a familiar name in the Ketterley table of contents that Narnia readers may remember as the evil magician who seeks to experiment on his own nephew. Piranesi, we understand immediately, is the subject of an experiment; we are not surprised to learn that the last name of others is Ketterley. (This tribute is made explicit, as the other fathers’ names are Andrew Ketterley, the Ketterley of fame of CS Lewis, from an old Dorsetshire family as praised by Lewiss Andrew Ketterley.) Piranesi’s favorite statue is a faun. , and in a dream, he sees her in a forest talking with a young girl. Narnia references in Piranesi are glaring and, like the streetlamp in the winter woods, they guide us to the books’ larger themes, even as the mysterious plot unfolds at a brisk pace.
As Piranesi inadvertently unravels the puzzle around her identity, the backstory unfolds with a slight resemblance to Donna Tartts the Secret History. A cult of devoted students surrounds a manipulative scholar, a man who surpasses the creation of Tartts in both power and wickedness; Suspected of murder and convicted of kidnapping, he is the type to speak fondly of his time in prison. Yet, while wickedness and evil intent are rampant among those who discover and investigate the House for their own purposes, its inherent spiritual value remains unblemished and is celebrated by Piranesi.
The Other sees the House as a place from which to draw power, but for Piranesi, it constitutes the world, possessing an intrinsic meaning. The reader may at first feel condescending towards Piranesi: he does not know his own name, and he does not know about the real world what can he know? The rational response to the house-centered religion of Piranesi is pity for the human turnip. Even his name, given to him by the Other, prompts us to pity him: the historic Piranesi was an Italian artist best known for his drawings of labyrinths that he called prisons. From the perspective of others, the house is a prison, and Piranesi is its pathetic prisoner. In this way, the perspective of others on Piranesi makes the Other a substitute for the reader.
Yet there is a beauty, even a nobility, in Piranesi’s spiritual worldview that over time resists a condescending response. Rather than an abstract spirituality of the Pharisaic or egocentric type, Piranesi is characterized by the empathy he has shown from the start, even towards his most bitter enemies.
Upon meeting someone who received a letter from him in his previous life, Piranesi overhears his former being described as an arrogant little shit. Even though this characterization is skewed by the disreputable person speaking it, overwhelming evidence accumulates over the course of the novel that the House made changes to Piranesi that made him more open and kind.
What resembles a pitiful imprisonment to us is, for him, an enriching and infinitely wonderful experience. What may seem like a random and insignificant event when an albatross arrives at Home is a revelation for Piranesi. He describes it as follows:
I saw a vision! In the subdued air above the gray waves hung a brilliant white cross. His whiteness was a blazing whiteness; he was far above the wall of statues behind him. It was beautiful but I didn’t understand it. The next moment brought a kind of enlightenment: it was not a cross at all but something vast and white, which was sliding rapidly towards me on the wind.
When we see a reference to a cross we immediately think of Christianity, but Piranesi revealed earlier in the book that he has no idea why his old journals are labeled 2012 and so on. (Charming, he wonders what happened 2,000 years ago.) The mention of Christianity in the above passage cannot be coincidental, especially in conjunction with CS Lewis’ references; Yet it seems clear that Christianity is not the final goal of Piranesi’s theological journey.
Ultimately, the House appears to represent something equivalent to the Platonic ideal of reality for Piranesi. He says, to defend the House from our world, You make the Statue appear to be somehow inferior to the thing itself.  I would say the statue is superior to the thing itself, the statue being perfect, eternal, and not subject to decay.
In the event that the above does not make it obvious, Piranesi is a philosophical work. Sometimes it becomes a sort of meditation on epistemology: Piranesi often has reason to wonder how he acquires in the House knowledge about things that exist only outside, that is to say things that ‘he never sees. And much of the plot involves a collection of clues from Piranesi, as he piece together the truth of his past. This in turn raises questions of identity: is the person Piranesi, whom he no longer remembers, still relevant today?
Piranesi is a work of intellectual intensity shrouded in a mysterious plot, culminating in a cinematic denouement that properly understands a loaded weapon. Like a kaleidoscope, Piranesi rewards the reader when returned to the spirit, but also rewards the reader who simply wants to know who Piranesi is, where he came from and how he became a prisoner in this magnificent labyrinth, populated by mythical statues, periodically inundated with nowhere tides.
Ilana Teitelbaum is the author of Last song before dark and Fire dance, under the pen name Ilana C. Myer.
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