Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land is a book about a book. Yawn, you say? But, wait, it is also about the love of books. Still yawning, I see. But a big section takes place in a library in Idaho. Whose point are you proving, you ask, while stifling another yawn.
Well, quit yawning, because Cloud Cuckoo Land is a delight. The story involves 3 timelines and characters separated by continents and centuries. They are connected only by a book supposedly written by Diogenes in the first century. That book (also called “Cloud Cuckoo Land”) is about Aethon, a shepherd who lived 80 years a man, 1 year a donkey, 1 year a sea bass, and 1 year a crow. It is an unbelievable comedy but that doesn’t make it a lie, because some stories “can be false and true at the same time.”
Diogenes’ book (really a codex) surfaces in Constantinople in 1453, during the Sultan’s long siege of the city. A 13 year old girl named Anna discovers the book and endeavors to protect it.
In the early 2000s the book is found in the Vatican’s archives. Major theme alert. “Sometimes the things we think are lost are only hidden, waiting to be rediscovered.” Age, water, and mildew have been cruel, making parts barely legible. It is published on the internet, and scholars are invited to decipher what they can. In Lakeport, Idaho, Zeno (who is not a scholar) is in his 80s and lonely, so he attempts to translate the story – perhaps realizing that he has a lot in common with Aethon. Seemingly ordinary people making great (though unrecognized) contributions to humanity is a second major theme.
Zeno’s translation eventually is discovered by Konstance circa 2130. She appears to be the sole survivor on a spaceship traveling to a distant planet.
Cloud Cuckoo Land is part epic poem, part fantastical quest, and part science fiction. And while the characters and events are convincingly depicted and the narrative is absorbing, the novel is really about the miraculous survival of Diogenes’ story.
Doerr writes a love letter to all the ancient myths, legends, and folktales that somehow survived when so many others did not. “In a time . . . when disease, war, and famine haunted practically every hour, when so many died before their time, their bodies swallowed by the sea or earth, or simply lost over the horizon, never to return, their fates unknown . . . Imagine how it felt to hear the old songs about heroes returning home. To believe that it was possible.” Times haven’t changed that much.
Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor