“Piranesi” is a novel about a House, with no end, and no exit. The main character, referred to as Piranesi (though this is not his name) lives in the House, and is alone except for one other living person and thirteen dead ones. The story is told through a series of journal entries he makes. This book is not overly full of action, and some might find it slow. It is very much like a dream, a depiction of another world that doesn’t appear to make much sense, except in a sort of dream logic.
When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of three Tides.
This is the very first line in the book, and from this first sentence the mystery and other-worldliness of the story is immediately established. The statues, which the reader eventually learns fill the House, are first mentioned a few sentences later.
Its walls are lined with marble statues, hundreds upon hundreds of them, tier upon tier …
The reader is immediately asking questions. What kind of a weird place is this?
The narrator continues, referring to the House as the World. The narrator tells us that the House has windows, but they look out on courtyards, so there is more of the House all around them. The narrator has not found windows that look out at the end of the House – in fact, the House seems to be without end. The only things he says are outside the House are the sun, moon and stars. There are three levels – the lowest are where the tides come from; the Upper Halls are the ‘domain of the clouds’, so they are constantly full of cloud, or fog, and the middle halls are where he lives. Non-human life is only present in fish from the ‘tides’ and birds in the middle halls. The House is full of halls and staircases, and the halls are full of statues. By the time you read less than ten pages in, you have a picture in your head of this environment, and it is weird, combining beauty with eeriness. The atmosphere captured here continues throughout the story.
An important aspect of the book is to do with identity. The protagonist does not actually know his name, and the name Piranesi is given to him by the Other, the only other living person he has seen in the House. As he is the narrator and the book is his journal, it refers to his environment in the way he does. So, the House is always with a capital H, as is the Other. The protagonist knows he is a scientist, and this shows in the methodical way he details his life in his journals, carefully dates them (with a dating system he has invented, such as the ‘thirteenth day of the ninth month in the year the albatross came to the south-western halls). That being said, there is something about the House that makes him forget who he is or how he came to be there. An interesting aspect of this is that the protagonist does not question things as one might imagine. He never names himself, and never asks the Other what his name is. He is grateful for the gifts the Other gives him, while not wondering where they come from. He wonders about the identities of the dead bodies he finds, but buries that under a layer of devotion to them, bringing offerings of water lilies and food, making sure the bones are safe and so on. What the reader reads is, as such, a character devoid of the culture of an environment, such as upbringing, social influence and so on. His life in the House may affect him, but in a way we see someone stripped of all the baggage of a life, left only with what is innate inside of him. A person who loses their memory often remembers how to do things, such as write and read, make maps and find his way, in this case. He remembers what science is, what a journal is, what language is. It’s a very interesting way of looking at identity devoid of experience, of seeing the genuine, fundamental person.
Moving on to the second character of the story, the narrator tells us about the ‘Other’, apparently the only other human being (living) in the House, and how they meet twice a week. He describes the Other as his friend, and records with gratitude the various gifts the Other has given him. We already know that the narrator lives a subsistence existence, fishing for food, using dried seaweed for fuel and so on. Yet, when he first describes the Other he describes him as being well-dressed and well groomed. The narrator is a peaceful and somewhat naïve person, and doesn’t wonder about this, but the reader immediately smells a rat. In his first conversation he asks the narrator whether he remembers ‘Battersea’. The reader knows this as a location, but the narrator has no idea what the word means. So this tells us immediately that the Other is not what he seems. Later the protagonist talks about the gifts he has been given, such as shoes, vitamins, and so on. The protagonist is grateful. The reader wonders – in a world where the narrator is living hand to mouth, how can the Other access these items?
It is simple to answer this well before the narrator finds out – the Other is travelling between the House and the world we all know. So why doesn’t he take the narrator home? It is the author’s intention that we, the audience, can see how suspicious the Other is, while our hero, stripped of all his memories that might fuel suspicion, is only happy to have occasional company, and doesn’t look further. The Other is using the hero to help him find the ‘great and secret knowledge’ that he believes the House contains. It is the Other who names the protagonist ‘Piranesi’. The protagonist himself cannot remember his name and doesn’t seem to feel he needs one. This is a reference to the artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who is known for his drawings of imaginary prisons. Are we supposed to think of the House as a prison? It is a name given him by the other, the antagonist of the story, so all it really tells us is that HE thinks of the House as a prison. We eventually discover that it is a prison, in a sense. However the protagonist has never felt imprisoned by it.
His statements that the protagonist forgets things and has to be told things over and over seem like an obvious attempt at gaslighting, though again the hero doesn’t understand this. What the Other doesn’t know is how meticulous the protagonist’s journals are – once he starts reading his very early journals, entries he does not remember writing, he starts to realize how much he has forgotten, though not what the Other was suggesting at all. Eventually the Other’s attempts to gaslight the protagonist backfire, as it leads him to start researching his own writings, slowly beginning to understand that the Other is not his friend and putting together what has happened to him.
The story deals with spirituality and belief systems from two angles – the personal faith of the narrator and the toxic belief system of the group surrounding a man called Laurence Arne-Sayles, who we learn about as the novel progresses. The narrator believes in the House, and considers that it looks after him, describing himself as the ‘child of the House’. He visits the thirteen dead people he has found (mostly just bones), giving them offerings of food and water lilies. He talks to the birds who roost in the halls.
The Beauty of the House is immeasurable, its kindness infinite.
One of the incidences that most indicate the peaceful and kind nature of the protagonist’s relationship with the House is when ‘the albatross came to the South-Western Halls’, an event he eventually gives as the name of that particular year, indicating that to him it was the most important event. Two albatrosses end up in the hall and they are nesting. He wonders how birds as large as they will find enough nesting material, and so he brings them some of his dried seaweed:
It approximated to three days’ fuel. This was no insignificant amount and I knew that I might be colder because I had given it away. But what is a few days of feeling cold compared to a new albatross in the World?
The narrator lives in harmony with the house and all the life that comes into it. He respects the dead and believes the statues will protect him (and often they do, shielding him from harm or being there for him to climb to get away from flood water and so on.) He speaks to the birds and seems to understand them, and he has worked out how the tides of sea water that sweep through the House work, when there will be a flood and where. The House may be a prison, but for the narrator it has become a way of being that influences every word and every action.
Arne-Sayles is the person who first worked out that other worlds existed and how to find them. He made a kind of cult out of it, influencing a small group of people around him to look for these worlds as well. When the protagonist finally reads his earliest journals, he learns that a woman called Sylvia d’Agostino had joined Arne-Sayles’ classes, and eventually lived in his house as an unpaid housekeeper and secretary. At his command she severed contact with her parents and they never saw her again. However, it was after she became friends with a man at the place she worked, and refused to leave him when Arne-Sayles told her to, that she disappeared. The story mentions others, but this is probably one of the most cult-like parts of the story. The narrator eventually believes she is one of the dead that he would visit. There are other stories of kidnapping, abuse and murder. Arne-Sayles, in effect, starts a cult that he himself does not believe. He is a manipulator, and he enjoys pulling strings.
So, what is the House? Arne-Sayles talks about a place where knowledge goes when it is lost, likening it to energy that cannot just disappear. This is what prompts the Other, or Ketterley, to go there hunting for ‘Great and Secret Knowledge’. However there does not seem to be any great truth to be found by Ketterley’s means, so perhaps there is no such thing. Or perhaps the protagonist’s spiritual change is the knowledge. While we eventually find out the protagonist’s name, it is not all that relevant to the story as he never recovers more than snippets of his memories. I’ve seen some reviewers say that the experience of the House is just the protagonist having a mental breakdown. That, to me, is quite a boring interpretation, and would render the novel as something quite mundane. If there is an allegory or metaphor here, it’s not that.
“Piranesi” is a fantastical, mysterious, beautiful and spooky story. It’s not your regular fantasy, but I strongly recommend it. I found it compelling reading.