The many conjurings of Piranesi

I can’t remember the last time I wrote about aa book herend that’s really sad, but life can get complicated. Fortunately I just read a book that forced me to talk about it. It was Piranesi by British author Susanna Clarke.

This is not my first encounter ith the charms of Susanna Clarke’s fantasy. A couple of years ago I read her novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (which I have recommended previously) and although I loved it, it didn’t become a favourite. I loved the writing and the story was more about the details and the furnishings of a magical world rather than about plot, which is something I like. It’s a very atmospheric book but it is perhaps too long. Jonathan Strange is like the lovechild of Charles Dickens and JK Rowling, it’s A story about two magicians set in the XIX century, Mr Norrell is the only magician left in England until he meets Jonathan Strange and becomes his teacher. Unfortunately both characters are selfish and only interested in magic for personal profit and fame (which is something to keep in mind when reading Piranesi). So this book is basically about magic, what magic is and how those who still practice it are, more often than not, jerks.

So basically, Jonathan Strange outlines what magic is for Susanna Clarke and its rules in her narrative universe. Magic is an ancient knowledge that we lost over time. In the book people believe nobody can do magic anymore and Mr Norrell proves them wrong. So magic was real before, we just don’t know how to use it anymore.

While I enjoyed the book, it didn’t really stay with me. It was until this year that I found out that Clarke had published another novel, Piranesi, that I remembered about Jonathan Strange and I thought it would be cool to read the new one. I didn’t know what it was about before reading it and it took me by surprise because it’s so good! I didn’t want to stop reading but I didn’t want it to be over, so by the end I was pretty much obsessed and started reading about Susanna Clarke.

Susanna Clarke at her home in the Peak district by Sarah M. Lee

And turns out she’s a pretty interesting and intriguing person herself. She was born on the 1st of november (intriguing birthday if you ask me) in Nottingham. She went to Oxford, just like Tolkien and CS Lewis, and she and her partner are friends with Neil Gaiman. She actually enrolled in a writing course and submitted her short story “The Ladies of Grace Adieu”, and the teacher (her now husband) liked it so much he sent it to Neil Gaiman, who got it published in a fantasy anthology. This short story later got published in a  book with the same name among other short stories. So Susanna Clarke has only published three books: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Piranesi. All of these are set in the same universe, in fact The Ladies of Grace Adieu is mentioned in Jonathan Strange. And while all deal with similar themes, Piranesi is way shorter and the language is stripped of the quaintness and antiquarian style of Jonathan Strange.

Piranesi

When we begin reading Piranesi we are introduced to a different world. The narrator tells us he lives in the House, with capital H: a giant house with countless stairs and halls filled withs statues. The narrator is one of the only two living people in the House. The Other (that’s what the other living person is called) is a scientific and he is trying to recover “the Ancient Knowledge”, an obscure task in which the narrator helps him. The narrator is called Piranesi by The Other and so we begin calling him Piranesi but he says repeatedly that he does not think that is his name. The name is actually a reference to an italian architect from the 18th century, Giambattista Piranesi, but our Piranesi doesn’t care, he loves the House and wants to make an inventory of all its statues, halls, measurements of the tides, etc.. In fact, what we are reading is a hybrid between a diary, an agenda and an inventory. And everything is peaceful, until Piranesi stars receiving messages from somebody else, a stranger.

Thus we start thinking that the House might not be the only place and begin to wonder about why Piranesi is there, what is this “secret knowledge” that The Other wants to recover and what is going on with all the statues. I do not want to spoil it for you, so I will just say this House where Piranesi lives reminded me a lot of Charn from The Chronicles of Narnia. Charn was a city in ruins where we first meet the witch. Also, the nature of the house itself reminded me a lot of Jorge Luis Borges, especially of the book The Aleph and the story about the minotaur (“La casa de Asterión”).

Another remarkable thing about the book is how adorable the main character is. Piranesi embodies innocence —the theme of the novel might be the loss of innocence, and in that way it is a very universal story about humanity. Piranesi lives in this house which he reveres and respects, he lives in peace with other creatures and has no other interest but to live fully and be of service to others. The Other, on the other hand, is always looking for this “ancient knowledge” for private purposes, he doen’t even know the halls or ways of the House, he doesn’t respect it or care for it, he embodies greed, corruption and selfishness. It is curious that in both novels Susanna Clarke depicts magicians as selfish and greedy people, people who have gone to great lengths to recover this magical knowledge and want use it for foolish and selfish purposes only. It is another thing she has in common with CS Lewis. If you read The Chronicles of Narnia you might remember that all of this applies to the character of the magician in the first book, The Magician’s Nephew, a self-absorbed intellectual who lacks compassion, empathy and respect for the world. And to make it clearer, this character and The Other’s teacher are both named Andrew Ketterley (same dude?).

I really have nothing bad to say about the book. I am not a big fantasy reader these days, mostly because most fantasy books disappoint me (except of course Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman, who never cease to surprise me) but Piranesi is something else. Susanna Clarke has made it to my favourite authors list because her work, especially Piranesi, is like a melting pot of ideas, there are so many elements in it: mythology, folklore, philosophy, sociology and I love works of fiction that pose more questions than they answer, for example questions about our perception of time and history, about empathy and even mental illness. Her work shows remarkable research and imagination so yes, if you get a chance, read Piranesi. It’s a quick read and I promise you won’t be disappointed. It’s awesome.

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