"...books, like people, die. They die in fires or floods or in the mouths of worms or at the whims of tyrants. If they are not safeguarded, they go out of the world. And when a book goes out of the world, the memory dies a second death." Licinious
This wonderful book is nominated for a British Book Award this year.
It's the story of the survival, against all odds, of an ancient Greek tale: the myth of Aethon, who seeks a mythical land of birds, hidden in the clouds. The myth itself is a shining example the ability of story to save the spirit and distract the reader or listener from illness, or a terrible plight.
Wound around this golden thread is a testament of the dogged determination of humankind to survive to tell our stories; in the face of war and the degeneration of life on earth.
Doerr uses the holy trinity of past, present and future (his words) to tell the story of Cloud Cuckoo Land from the perspective of five characters, all connected through time by their response to Aethon's story; purportedly found in a tomb by Antonius Diogenes.
The motif of birds, central to the myth, encircles the whole story.
In the fifteenth century, Omeir, a young Bulgarian farmhand, has been conscripted to serve the Sultan of the Ottoman army in the siege of Constantinople, along with his beloved oxen, Tree and Moonlight.
"...For a thousand years your city, this crumbling capital was like (the) ark. Only instead of two of every living creature, do you know what the good Lord stacked inside this ship? Books. ..Can you guess what is the flood? Time. ...Day after day, year after year, time wipes the old books from the world." Urbino scribe.
Anna, a seamstress, lives within the city. She gains an appreciation for stories from Licinious, an old teacher; learning to read in Greek the tales of Odysseus and Ulysses 'on the thousand blank pages of her mind.' Anna, ever adventurous, teams up with a thief to uplift ancient scripts from an old church, to sell them to scribes from Urbino. In the last days of the city, she reads the myth of Cloud Cuckoo Land to her sister, to distract them from the sounds of war:
' "In the days...when bards travelled from town to town carrying the old songs in their memories, performing them for anyone who would listen, they would delay the outcomes in their tales for as long as they could, improvising one last verse, one last obstacle for the heroes to overcome, because... if the singers could hold their listeners' attention for one more hour, they might be granted one more cup of wine, one more piece of bread, on more night out of the rain."
Anna imagines Antonius Diogenes... setting knife to quill, quill to ink, ink to scroll, placing one more barricade in front of Aethon, stretching time for another purpose: to detain his niece in the living world for a little longer. ...Maybe dark magic does live inside the old books. Maybe as long as she still has more lines to read to her sister, as long as Aethon persists on his harebrained journey, flapping his way toward his dream in the clouds, then the city gates will hold; maybe death will stay outside their door for one more day.'
When the city falls, Omeir and Anna's own stories are destined to intersect.
"That's what the gods do...they spin threads of ruin through the fabric of our lives, all to make a song for generations to come."
Cloud Cuckoo Land also follows two men in Lakeport, Idaho, from the 1960s to 2020, whose fates are also intertwined.
Zeno is a gay Vietnam vet now in his dotage. His life's work has been a translation of Cloud Cuckoo Land. His translation is brought to life by a group of children, who decide it should be performed as a play.
'By age seventeen he'd convinced himself that every human he saw was a parasite, captive to the dictates of consumption. But as he reconstructs (the) translation, he realizes that we are all beautiful even as we are all part of the problem, and that to be a part of the problem is to be human.'
Seymour is a young man with autism who watches the natural landscape he loves dwindle into holiday homes for the rich. His love of creatures, in particular an owl called Trustyfriend, is mirrored by Omeir, who truly cares for his animals and feels not exaltation, but sorrow when an ancient tree is felled.
And in a future we would do well to dread, after the earth has descended into climate crisis, Konstance is fated to live out her days on a spaceship called the Argos: humanity having dwindled to a handful of survivors hurtling through space to a new home that she won't see in her lifetime.
Argos means Ark: 'the heritage of all humanity' - the stories of whole world - and the seeds of its future are stored with her. Finding that the myth of Cloud Cuckoo Land, the story her father told her, is not archived there, Konstance is the last to rewrite it: once again saving the story from being lost to humanity.
"Each of these books, child, is a door, a gateway to another place and time."
Much of the setting of Cloud Cuckoo Land revolves around libraries: the damp, abandoned tower in Constantinople, still harbouring treasures; the library in Lakeport: a haven for those in need, with its caring librarians; and the incredible virtual library aboard the Argos.
I was moved by the plight of the oxen in Omeir's story. The humans became old friends too, as I followed the length of their days, trials and their legacies - each ensuring the story survives to be told again to a new generation.
Cloud Cuckoo Land is language rich, engaging and delightful. It's magical, but contains a resounding message: save the Earth!
'Sometimes the things we think are lost are only hidden, waiting to be rediscovered.' Rex
The British Book Awards, or the 'Nibbies', award the Book of the Year across twelve categories and will be announced at an awards ceremony on 23 May 2022 (GMT).
Find out more:
- Other titles by Anthony Doerr
- Try our eco-fiction list for reads with similar themes, or request a reading recommendation.
- Neil Young - After the Gold Rush (Live at Farm Aid 1998) - YouTube