“Since the World began it is certain that there have existed fifteen people. Possibly there have been more; but I am a scientist and must proceed according to the evidence.”
The protagonist and narrator of Piranesi is a young man who believes himself to be between thirty and thirty-five years of age. He lives largely alone in the House, a building made up of many vast halls on several levels whose walls are lined with statues depicting both humans and other creatures. Predictable Tides flow through the lower levels, occasionally rising higher to engulf the halls where the young man spends much of his time. It is one of these events that opens the story, with the young man clinging to a statue as the Sea sweeps over him before receding.
Twice a week, for no more than an hour at a time, the young man meets with the Other. It is this older man who provided his younger associate’s moniker, Piranesi – not the name he once had, although he cannot remember what that might have been. Together they seek ways to unlock the Knowledge. Piranesi remains quietly unconvinced that this is a good or necessary aim.
“I realised that the Other’s description of the powers the Knowledge will grant has always made me uneasy. For example: he says that we will have the power to control lesser minds; there are only him and me and we both have keen and lively intellects. But, supposing for a moment that a lesser mind existed, why would we want to control it?”
The young man reveres the House, believing it benevolent and capable of providing him with everything he needs. He collects rainwater to drink. He catches fish to eat. He talks to the birds that build nests within the halls. He eats neither them nor their eggs. Piranesi looks after the bones of those he believes once lived within the halls before him. He looks forward to meeting the next inhabitant who he refers to as Sixteen, although he has been warned by the Other that this person, should they arrive, could be dangerous.
The reader learns how Piranesi came to live in the House and the role the Other plays in his life. Reveals are gradual and intricately presented. The world building is exceptional. Plot progression is built around Piranesi’s learned habits and the changes he must then deal with.
The young man keeps journals and it is through these that he starts to question how reliable his memory is. Being largely happy and content to live in the House, such questions perturb his carefully constructed equilibrium. He tries always to think positively about the Other so is concerned by some of the actions the older man suggests may be necessary.
Although there is an element of the supernatural, this is not key to what the reader is being encouraged to consider. The House is Piranesi’s world. It is so vast he believes any other people who exist must reside within halls he has not yet travelled to. He has no concept of a beyond although at times shadows flicker in his mind that he cannot quite grasp.
A beautifully structured and developed story that questions what life can be and if those who know nothing else will personally benefit from elucidation. Not all questions may be answered, but the choices Piranesi ultimately makes will linger. A thought provoking and exceptionally well told tale.
Piranesi is published by Bloomsbury.