Numbers make me sleep. For some yet undiscovered reason, despite this being a real phenomenon, seeing, hearing, writing numbers tire.me. Even in the Bible, Numbers is my least favorite.
What does this have to do with Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi? Simply, there is so much mention of numbers – days, months, halls, statues, height – that I had trouble focused on the words on the first (not few pages). I was thinking to myself all the time, Why am I even reading this? and, I must do this, this book is expensive. I am not into numbers and I am also not into arts. At this point I was only pushing myself.
That is, until I reached page 59. I am not sure where the transition happened; I just found myself devouring the words, engaged, hooked at the lines, and more importantly, the ideas.
(Rereading this without any intent on deleting anything, I realized that it happened when the science talk started. Back in school, I was never good at science, but I love it. But I love composition the most and it was this line that changed my mind.)
Piranesi is weird. When it started, I thought the narrator was a fetus and the World was the womb, but by the second entry – as we are reading journal entries – I was ashamed of myself for thinking that. Everything was confusing. Of course there were all the numbers which started shutting my mind and my eyes. Then there were the statues and although I recognized minotaurs and centaurs I do not know anything about the visual arts. Still, the writer of the journal I was reading, Piranesi, was endearing in his innocence and child-like curiosity. He is a scientist. (As I mentioned before, I love science.)
The story is revealed in a series of journal entries written by our protagonist. The dates are chronological but what Piranesi writes in it are not. Sometimes, these are observations. Sometimes, memories. Sometimes, thoughts. Sometimes, entries from another time. This also is not merely a stylistic choice but a major part of the story. This, among other things, is genius.
The setting is literally ‘full of wonders’ (Sunday Times) and literally ‘utterly otherworldly’ (Guardian). As I mentioned before, I do not have any inclination to visual arts so I was lost among all the sculptures and halls where the story happens. I was also overwhelmed by the large numbers. Maybe this is the purpose, to overwhelm the reader by the vastness of the labyrinth with only two people in it – I cannot be sure.
It is not one of my favorite books, but Piranesi is one of those books that deserves to be read more than once. First, for the story. Then, all other times, for whatever reason lost people are found by the sea.