Susanna Clarke's 'Piranesi': How real is the world we imagine?
In the 1700s, there lived an Italian artist, architect, and archaeologist who saw in the world far more than what was in it. Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778) captured his world, among other things, through prints: the most famous of which are the Views of Rome, an imitation of the remains of the ancient city, and the Imaginary Prisons. His works strained the bounds of the imagination, creating geometries and architectural wonders using optical illusions over a century before the likes of MC Escher. Susanna Clarke's second novel, Piranesi (Bloomsbury, 2020), lives up to its namesake. It constructs an elaborate world of concepts and illusions, and guides the reader through an impossible landscape as if it were a neighbourhood park. It is an adventure, a mystery, and a deep dive into the essence of human existence.
Piranesi is the tale of a man who lives in The House, which is the entire world. The House is labyrinthine, with no beginning nor end, and is lined with thousands of wholly unique, marvellous marble statues. He explores the house—its distant regions, its surges of migrating birds and tides—and journals his experiences, which is how we read of them. He shares his experiences and The House with his friend, The Other, a man who visits twice a week to seek help researching A Great and Secret Knowledge hidden within The House. But as Piranesi explores, questions emerge from the depths of The House, and the mysteries he is dragged into upturn his entire view of the world.
Like the works of Piranesi the printmaker, Clarke's writing is fractal in its layers of meaning. The story itself is presented as a journal, yet it throws itself against the conventions of journaling to further its own delving into the human condition. Clarke's tone, her use of punctuation, and capitalisation of letters change throughout the book too, and they are used to subtly show the narrator's changing states of mind. Her prose is gracefully simple while tackling themes that, in the hands of a lesser author, would render the book dense and verbose.
We start slowly, watching Piranesi's everyday, and while that does serve the purpose of grounding us within his normal, one cannot help but wish it had been done a bit quicker. The novel is slow to reveal its secrets, and yet once a secret is revealed, it confuses more than clarifies, and this keeps the reader engaged throughout the tale. This is easy to do, for Piranesi is an incredibly likeable protagonist, resourceful, observant, and smart.
Yet Clarke expects her readers to be just as smart as her. She plays with distinction of the narrator's point of view versus the reader's: things that seem suspicious to us are normal to Piranesi, and things suspicious to Piranesi are normal to us, and the world itself is so bizarre and enigmatic that the reader cannot help but question everything they think they know. Clarke uses this confusion to build mystery and hide in plain sight.
This novel could be classified as a work of speculative fiction or mystery—but to do so would be nothing but a marketing move, for if anything, Piranesi is a dissection of perception, language and meaning, and reality itself. His diary entries, each quizzical to the outside viewer but oh-so-sensible when explained, are a fine example of how memory and language marry and play. His ascribing of meaning to the statues and the cycles of the House—to time itself—mirror how we give meanings to the things around us through our interactions and our preconceived biases. Clarke thus questions the inherent morality in relying on a self-governing higher power for "justice", even when we may personally oppose those methods. And she questions the idea of a Self—how it metamorphoses through different stages of life, and how simply writing about it can translate this strange process into something familiar and grounding.
It was not written for a pandemic-scarred audience, but after nearly 1.5 years of being forced to cut off social interaction, reading this book resonates deeply with the collective sense of alienation that we're all experiencing. With or without the pandemic as a backdrop, however, Clarke's novel, announced today as the winner of UK's 2021 Women's Prize for Fiction, is a masterclass in world building, in crafting atmosphere and approachable philosophical discussions.
Yaameen Al-Muttaqi works with robots and writes stories of dragons, magic, friendship, and hope. Send him a raven at email@example.com. Sarah Anjum Bari contributed to this article.