Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr. New York: Scribner, 2021.
Summary: A story of five characters living in three time periods, whose lives are tied together by the story of Aethon the shepherd written by Antonius Diogenes.
I ordered this one as soon as I could. I thought Anthony Doerr’s All the Light You Cannot See one of the best novels I’ve read in the past twenty years. The novel won a Pulitzer Prize and I couldn’t wait to see how he would follow that tour de force. I guess my response, having read the book, would be to say, “It’s complicated….”
For one thing, it is complicated as a story, really three stories occurring in three time periods of five people whose lives are tied together by another story. The story that ties these three together is of Aethon the shepherd who embarks on a quest to find a mythical city in the clouds where all his questions will be answered and longings met. Successively, he is transformed into a donkey, a fish, and a crow before he finds the city and gains admission at the gates. The story is actually based on a few extant fragments of The Wonders of Thule, the remainders of an 1800 year old manuscript by Antonius Diogenes, according to a note by Doerr.
The first story is occurs in 1452-53, in the attack on Constantinople. Anna, an apprentice seamstress, to supplement her wages to get medical help for her sister, becomes a petty thief, climbing a tower with a lost library. While her and her accomplice sell various items, she keeps an old, somewhat mildewed book that is the tale of Aethon, which she reads to her dying sister, and preserves as a treasure, which in later years made it to the Vatican. Eventually she flees the city, meeting up with Omeir, ostensibly an enemy, a hare-lipped young man, something of an outcast, whose gentle life had been spent tending oxen used to transport siege materials. They flee together to his home.
The second story is in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from the 1930’s to the 2050’s. The older of the characters is Zeno, a gay Korean war surviving POW, who first heard Aethon’s story from Rex, an antiquities scholar from England and fellow prisoner. Zeno returned to Lakeport, Idaho, where he spent an uneventful life as a plow driver, punctuated by a visit to Rex and his gay lover in England. Subsequently, through the local librarian, he learns of a digitized version of the only surviving manuscript of the story of Aethon. Consulting with Rex, he spends his retirement years translating an annotated version of the story, until enlisted one day by the librarian, Marian, to help her occupy a group of five fifth graders. He turns his translation into a play that he rehearses with the fifth graders and it is on the night of the rehearsal that he has his fateful encounter with Seymour.
Seymour is an autistic youth raised by a single mom in a double-wide she inherited, as she struggles in low wage jobs to make ends meet. What helps him survive are woods behind his home, where he encounters Trustyfriend, an owl he sits with who brings peace to the cacophony of his autistic world–until developers turn the woods into a high end development. Trustyfriend disappears. And then one day, he finds the wing of an owl. Over time, he becomes an extreme environmental activist, drawn into a dark web group for which he must commit an act of violent protest to be initiated. He chooses to make a bomb to blow up the library–on the night of the rehearsal.
The third story center around Konstance, the precocious daughter of a scientist father and teacher mother on an instellar, multigenerational voyage in the twenty-second century, who heard the story of Aethon from her father before being confined in quarantine when a disease sweeps through the ship, apparently killing all the others. Sybil, the all-knowing “Hal” of the ship will not release her, so she begins to research the story of Aethon, reassembling the scraps of the manuscript and tracing the provenance of the story, including a beautifully bound copy she sees in a digital image in a window of her father’s childhood home.
Doerr moves back and forth between the three stories, weaving successive episodes of the story of Aethon through the whole narrative. As I said, it’s complicated, layered…and for me, it worked, in ways both similar and different to All the Light We Cannot See. Like that book, children play a significant role here, as well as one older storyteller. In the first story, two children on the opposite sides in a siege intersect, with a very different result. Like that book I hear Doerr’s quiet voice unfolding a story of beauty and pathos What is so different is the use of an overarching story to connect the other three, a story that transforms characters in each of the three stories.
Perhaps the import of this all is in the dedication: “For the librarians then, now, and in the years to come.” The narrative is about the preservation of a book, a story nearly lost, hidden in a derelict library, digitized in another, translated in a third, and rediscovered in a fourth. A library played a powerful shaping role on the life of Zeno, as it did on the five children in this play, one of who turns out to be an ancestor of Konstance. A bibliophile at one point in the story reminds us that out of the thousands of ancient Greek plays, we have only thirty-two. Books may be destroyed by fire, water, mold and mildew, insects, shredding, and in our digital age, by erasure or the degradation of digital information or obsolescence of the devices on which the books are read. Doerr offers a quiet polemic for the protection of the stories of our civilization and the vital role of libraries and librarians in that work.
All this occurs against an apocalyptic backdrop, the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, the worsening environmental crisis of the present, and the desperate efforts to plant a human civilization on a distant world. Is there a word here that our civilization’s stories may be even more vital to preserve in desperate times when the temptation is great to neglect them? Might we find ourselves even in the seeming silliness of the story of Aethon and profit from the story of his quest? Only if the stories remain.