Les Murray once said that you can write poetry if you can go into a certain kind of trance. Reading Piranesi is like going into that trance, like entering into a calm and sustaining dream. The world of this dream is a vast many-storied edifice in which the tides thunder in the lower storeys and the sky shines in through the archways of the upper storeys, the middle levels containing chambers of enormous statues. The only living inhabitants of this other world are Piranesi (the narrator) and the Other. It is the Other who has given Piranesi his name, as a kind of joke, he says. The joke is at the narrator’s expense (the Other is a nasty character). Piranesi was an 18th century architect and artist, famous for his etchings of ancient Rome so beautiful the real Rome was thought to be a disappointment, and of enormous subterranean prisons. Our Piranesi is not a creator but a guileless child of duty. He knows every detail of the vast Halls and Vaults, lives to the rhythm of the rising and falling tides, the migrating birds and the changing stars, and tends with religious care the bones of other humans he has found.
The creation of this world is the great charm of Piranesi. There is, of course, a story based in the ordinary world (the world we know) of how he came to be there, and a choice he has to make about what world he wants to live in, but for me that was of much less interest. The allegorical aspect of it didn’t interest me, and from reading interviews with Susanna Clarke I don’t think she’s all that interested in it either. I think she’s interested in where imagination can take us, as it has taken her, into the world that surrounds the one we live in as the universe surrounds the little Earth.
The other charming aspect of the book is the entirely loveable narrator, an earnest, self-effacing character driven by a pure sense of the natural obligations of a human being. That doesn’t change even when he realises that others use people like him for their own ends.
Here he is, a bit indignant that the Other has told him that he forgets things:
The World (so far as I can tell) does not bear out the Other’s claim that there are gaps in my memory.
While he was explaining it to me – and for some time afterwards – I did not know what to think. At several points I experienced a feeling akin to panic. Could it really be the case that I had forgotten whole conversations?
But as the day went on, I could find no evidence of memory loss to support the Other’s claim. I busied Myself with my ordinary, everyday tasks. I mended one of my fishing nets and worked on my Catalogue of Statues. In the early evening I went to the Eighth Vestibule to fish in the Waters of the Lower Staircase. The Beams of the Declining Sun shone through the Windows of the Lower Halls, striking the Surface of the Waves and making ripples of golden Light flow across the Ceiling of the Staircase and over the faces of the Statues. When night fell, I listened to the Songs that the Moon and Stars were singing, and I sang with them.
The World feels Complete and Whole, and I, its Child, fit into it seamlessly….
We could do with a lot more Piranesis and a lot fewer Others.