Piranesi By Susanna Clarke – Controlling The Tides

Sketch from the “Imaginary Prisons” series by Giovanni Piranesi – eighteenth century Italian archaeologist, architect and artist

(Be aware, some spoilers may follow)

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke, published in September 2020, is set in a kind of parallel world. This takes the form of a series of vast, interconnecting halls on three levels stretching for hundreds of miles in all directions. The lower levels of “the house” are washed by ocean waves, the upper levels obscured by cloud, the mid levels are habitable, at least if you know how to fish, and burn dried seaweed to stay warm.

I read this book two ways. The first involves the way people, self-regarding as always, tend to see their own affairs reflected in the world around them. The world of the house seems to be an actual physical manifestation of human thought over millennia. The house judges those within it through the action of natural events, rewarding those it favours and punishing those it doesn’t, mostly through the action of floods. This reflects the way many societies have viewed nature involving itself with their affairs. The ancient Egyptian civilisation, for example, had priests whose job it was to intercede with the gods to make sure the Nile flooded regularly and replenished the soil.

From this point of view I thought the scenario of Piranesi, an entire world built as a reflection of humanity’s doings, was as silly as expecting Egyptian priests to really control flooding with their prayers.

However, there was another aspect of the book that made me think again. The central character, known as “Piranesi,” emotional and mysterious though his bond with the house may be, is also a scientist. By close observation he knows when high tides will occur, and when they will pose danger by washing through the habitable part of the house. So when a dangerously high tide appears to help Piranesi, while thwarting his enemies, that is just a reflection of his understanding of tides, rather than any mystical judgement by the house. Piranesi really is in tune with the house, but he achieves this not with prayers and mysticism, but through close observation and note taking.

So the book is about the relationship of rationality and irrationally, or art and science if you like. Getting to the house involves a bit of mystical setting aside of rationality, but once there, what seems to be mysticism is actually the result of careful study.

Piranesi is an interesting and imaginative book, with an engaging central character. The setting may be bizarre, but it’s actually a mystery story, which even involves a police character who helps unravel the puzzle of how Piranesi ended up in the house. At a time when society seems to be struggling with irrational ideas, this is a timely reflection on how people think about the world around them

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