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Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr

October 1, 2022

In Aristophanes’ play The Birds an Athenian persuades the all of the birds in the world to create a new city in the sky where they can control communication between men and gods, calling it Cloud Cuckoo Land. In medieval myth this kind of dream land was called Cockaigne, a place of pleasure and plenty. In his new novel Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr takes tales like these and fills in the gaps to create something new out of bits that might have once been lost. It’s a wonderfully inventive book about people who hand on stories and keep them alive.

At first I didn’t much like the stories Doerr is telling, about children in mortal peril. There are five main characters: Omeir, Anna, Konstance, Zeno, and Seymour. Omeir and his oxen are besieging Anna’s home in 15th-century Constantinople, Konstance is on a generation ship headed for a new planet, now that Earth has become uninhabitable in the 22nd century. Zeno and Seymour are in a public library in a small town in present-day Idaho, although we’re introduced to Zeno as a child in 1941.

As the stories go on and began to intertwine, however, I started enjoying the way they’re all telling the story of cloud cuckoo land in order to hold on to life. A version of the title story is included between chapters in fragments attributed to Antonius Diogenes (fictional ones, written by Anthony Doerr). Stories within stories stack up. I like the story told to Anna, in Constantinople, about how the city is like Noah’s ark:
“only instead of two of every living creature, do you know what the good Lord stacked inside this ship?….Books.…And in our tale of Noah and the ship of books, can you guess what is the flood?….Time. Day after day, year after year, time wipes the old books from the world. The manuscript you brought us before? That was written by Aelian, a learned man who lived at the time of the Caesars. For it to reach us in this room, in this hour, the lines within it had to survive a dozen centuries. A scribe had to copy it, and a second scribe, decades later, had to recopy that copy, transform it from a scroll to a codex, and long after the second scribe’s bones were in the earth, a third came along and recopied it again, and all this time the book was being hunted. One bad-tempered abbot, one clumsy friar, one invading barbarian, an overturned candle, a hungry worm—and all those centuries are undone.”

After we are introduced to Seymour in a situation that makes him seem like the villain of the novel, we get stories about his childhood experience with a wild owl and the destruction of the wilderness next to his house. As he gets older, we see how “reading about declining owl populations led him to deforestation which led to soil erosion which led to ocean pollution which led to coral bleaching…every system on the planet connected by countless invisible threads to every other.”

One of the characters, the one who gets Zeno interested in translating a lost tale, has written a Compendium of Lost Books and says “Take the tragedies alone….We know that at least one thousand of them were written and performed in Greek theaters in the fifth century B.C. You know how many we have left? Thirty-two.”

Everyone in the novel gets a chance to imagine their version of cloud cuckoo land. A group of children in the public library talk about what theirs would be like:
“You know what?” says Christopher. “In my Cloud Cuckoo Land? Instead of rivers of wine, there’d be root beer. And all that fruit would be candy.”
“So much candy” says Alex.
“Infinity Starburst,” says Christopher.
“Infinity Kit Kats.”
Natalie says, “In my Cloud Cuckoo Land? Animals would be treated the same as people.”
“Also no homework,” says Alex. “And no strep throat.”

Reading Doerr’s version, the novel he titles Cloud Cuckoo Land, is deeply satisfying. As one little girl experiences it, reading the only book she has, “turn a page, walk the lines of sentences: the singer steps out, and conjures a world of color and noise in the space inside your head.”

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    October 1, 2022 7:41 am

    This sounds really interesting. He’s a good storyteller, or at least that was my experience of All the Light We Cannot See (though I know some critics who were really dismissive of that novel as cheesy and manipulative – but it worked for me). It sounds like he pulls this off, with a concept that might falter in other hands.

    • October 1, 2022 7:46 am

      I didn’t enjoy reading All the Light We Cannot See; evidently I didn’t even review it after reading it. I did enjoy this one, though, and thought he did well with a difficult concept.

  2. October 7, 2022 1:35 pm

    I’ve still not read him, though many friends rave about his book. I recently got a copy of All the Light you Cannot See at a library book sale. I’ll keep looking for this one. One day, I’ll even read him. 🙂

    • October 7, 2022 1:46 pm

      This one is for readers, so I think you’ll like it. As I said to Rohan, I didn’t much care for All the Light you Cannot See.

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