A man inhabits a vast building containing reams of hallways and innumerable statues depicting various mythological figures. His sole companion is a man he refers to as the Other; in return, the Other refers to him as Piranesi. This bewilders him, as he does not identify with that name — at least, not until he adopts it for an occasion in which he finds no other name suitable. Piranesi has no idea of where he came from, or how he arrived at the building; indeed, he has no conception of a world beyond the confines of the House (as he terms it). Outside of his occasional meetings with the Other — who is not particularly forthcoming with information — his chief means of discovery is through exploring the House and uncovering its myriad secrets.
Although fantasy literature may be popularly associated with long-running series comprising doorstopper after doorstopper, Susanna Clarke is living proof of the power that quality holds over quantity. She made a superstar debut back in 2004 with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which remained her sole novel for sixteen years. Then came Piranesi, a novel that was not only honoured by the major SF/F awards (as well as being up for a Hugo, it was a finalist at the Nebulas and World Fantasy Awards) it succeeded in winning the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Given that the mainstream literary awards have a shaky relationship with fantasy, this is quite an accomplishment.
It would perhaps be overly obvious to attribute part of Piranesi’s success to the fact that it came out in the lockdown era, when readers would naturally be receptive to a story of a person trapped in a building. Even if we leave aside the matter of timeliness, however, the novel has a truly inspired protagonist. Despite his ignorance of the outside world, Piranesi is far from a blank slate: he is a multi-faceted character full of quirks and contradictions. He possesses a scientist’s refusal to draw conclusions without evidence and navigates the House in a series of tests and experiments. For example, after breaking his spectacles he repairs one arm with fish-leather and the other with seaweed to see which method works best.
Yet his capacity for theory is clearly limited. Having found 13 human skeletons in the House, his conclusion is that the human species must have had at least fifteen people (counting himself and the Other) throughout its history. When the Other mentions a long-dead individual by name, Piranesi excitedly asks which of the 13 skeletons this name belongs to. Although he is open to the possibility that there are more people (either living or dead) out there, he requires solid evidence before fully accepting this notion. He has a child’s limited experience, but none of a child’s ability to imagine a wider world
The intriguing contradictions continue. For all of his ignorance, he is clearly familiar with Greek mythology, being able to identify statues of centaurs, satyrs and minotaurs; and for all of his imaginative shortcomings he is able to glean symbolic meanings from various sculptures (“A child and mice. The child represents the quality of innocence. The mice are devouring the grain. Little by little it is diminished, Innocence that is worn down or eroded.”)
If his scientific viewpoint fetters him, his artistic leanings to something to liberate him.
Piranesi is an epistolary novel from the start, being framed as the main character’s diary, but the format later expands to include journal articles that he finds and reads. To the reader, these supply vital pieces of the puzzle, describing the occult experiments that led to Piranesi sharing the House with the Other. To Piranesi himself, however, any discussion of the outside world is a bewildering affair, relying as it does upon such nonsensical words as “Battersea” and “Birmingham”. Indeed, when the Other mentions Battersea in conversation, Piranesi deduces that this is a meaningless word used in an attempt to catch him out — he simply cannot conceive of any other reason why a person would use a term so divorced from his experience.
The sheltered standpoint of the protagonist is by turns comical, melancholy and unsettling. It becomes clear that the Other is deliberately misleading him for some unsavoury purpose. When Piranesi is finally given the opportunity to meet people besides the Other, his musings progress from natural to moral philosophy. Would it be permissible for him to break a promise to the Other if doing so would protect an individual who may well be innocent? Whether he is aware of it or not, Piranesi is at the centre of an occult conflict, and he must choose a side.
The main narrative behind the House and the people associated with it is not, in itself, particularly interesting: it is ultimately revealed to be a familiar story of hero, heroine and villain. Its appeal to the reader — beyond, perhaps, imagining the hinted-at tales that occur between the lines — lies within the effect that it has upon the protagonist. His philosophical inquiries expand yet again into a still more personal direction. If he has no memory of his experiences before being trapped in the house, then is he truly the same person?
Piranesi wears some of its influences on its sleeve. The main character’s nickname (and consequently the novel’s title) comes from the eighteenth-century engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi, noted for his depictions of imaginary (and often bizarre) architecture. C. S. Lewis’ Narnia stories receive multiple allusions: even the epigraph is a quotation from The Magician’s Nephew, and anyone who has read that story will find the descriptions of enigmatic hallways and alluring statuary somewhat familiar.
However, in many respects, Piranesi’s closest spiritual kinship is with the works of Lewis Carroll. While the general structure of the Alice novels has inspired sundry tales of children in fantastical portal-worlds — Oz, Neverland and Narnia to name but three — these works generally do not emulate the more cerebral aspects of Carroll’s fiction. For all of their outward nonsense, Alice’s adventures have a robust (if twisted) logical backbone imparted by the mathematician-poet who wrote them.
This is the logic that prompted the March Hare to protest that, while he may have put butter in the Mad Hatter’s watch, it was the very best butter; and which faced Alice with such moral quandaries as whether the Walrus or the Carpenter was the most objectionable in his oyster-eating habits. The character of Piranesi has much in common with Alice, each combining a rigorously analytical mindset with a distinctly limited frame of reference: Alice’s theory that the mouse cannot speak to her because it is a French rodent who came over with William the Conquerer is echoed in the various logical but misguided conclusions made by Piranesi.
As a novel, Piranesi is both relatively short and thoroughly concise. Everything in its world, from the setting of the House to the supporting cast, exists to be bounced off the main character. Where some works of fantasy aim to serve up banquets, with great sprawling lands ready-prepared to be consumed by the imagination, Piranesi acts more as a palette-cleanser. It clears the mind, encouraging the reader to see the world with new eyes — just as the protagonist by the end of the story. How appropriate that one of the rare fantasy novels to arrive in the mainstream of “proper” literature should be so determined to refresh.