Cast across three millennia, six storylines weave the human experience into a single hopeful narrative. Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land is a stupendous accomplishment.
[What I’m about to tell you comes with a mild spoiler alert. Mild because this 626-page novel is so complex that I’m incapable of ruining the surprises or encompassing the depth of its themes.]
Stitching the storylines together are one-or-two-page threads of an ancient Greek tale written by Diogenes. The tale is narrated by “the one they called birdbrain and nincompoop, yes, I, dull-witted muttonheaded lamebrained Aethon.”
Aethon “once traveled all the way to the edge of the earth and beyond.”
The majority of these threads attribute their translation to Zeno Ninis. Zeno started to learn Greek while a North Korean POW in 1951. After the war, we follow Zeno back to Lakeport, Idaho where, except for one brief trip to London to thank the POW friend who introduced him to Greek, he leads a lonely, unremarkable life.
We eventually learn that in 2020, when Zeno is eighty-six, he has mastered ancient Greek so well that he has translated Diogene’s first century script into a play that’s about to be performed by a group of fifth graders. They are utterly enraptured by the odyssey of a man who’s turned into a donkey, then into a fish who’s captured by a whale and then finally becomes a crow who flies all around the world searching a place of milk and honey known as Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Two of the other story lines unfold during the 1453 siege of Constantinople. Within the great walled city lives a girl named Anna. She’s an indentured seamstress who is talked into stealing old books from library ruins outside the walls of the city. One of the books she finds is – you guessed it – a codex containing Diogenes’ first century script, Cloud Cuckoo Land. Enchanted by it, Anna doesn’t sell the codex for food, as she has all the others, but instead hides it away, her most prized possession.
Outside the walls is a peasant boy who’s been conscripted into the Ottoman army that’s laying siege to the city. He was grabbed by soldiers because of his adept ways at getting his team of giant oxen to work together. His name is Omeir. Though he was impressed at first by the Sultan’s massive guns pummeling the walls of Constantinople, Omeir is worn down, his beloved oxen have died and he longs to return to the simple life on his family’s remote mountain farm.
In the distant future, a girl named Konstance is celebrating her tenth birthday. She lives with her mom and dad in a self-sustained spacecraft called Argos. As is the tradition on Argos, when a child turns ten, they learn the truth about their voyage. She’s told that they are hurdling through space at 7,734,958 kilometers per hour headed toward a distant planet identified as Oph2. They are in the 64th year of a journey that will take 592 years.
Konstance’s birthday gift is library privileges. In addition to digital copies of every known book from earth, the library includes a virtually reality program called Illium that lets her journey to any place on earth, to a time before it was ruined.
Back on earth in 2020, at the Lakeport library where Zeno and his troop of fifth graders are rehearsing, a teen who has struggled with autism throughout his childhood, is about to set-off a bomb. Seymour’s storyline expands the climate crisis theme that is a critical backdrop to this novel.
Seymour’s greatest comfort as a small child was the quiet of the woods that surround the house he lives in with his mom. He befriends a giant grey owl he calls Trustyfriend. After developers buy all the land around them, build roads and cut down most of the trees, Trustyfriend is killed by a car.
In eight grade Seymour learns that in that last 40 years we’ve killed 60% of the wild animals, fish and birds on earth. In the past 30 years we’ve melted 95% of the oldest, thickest ice in the artic. The developers who ruined the woods around him become the target of Seymour’s anger. Their offices are adjacent to the Lakeport library. He builds a bomb that will rip right through the library walls.
As Diogenes ancient tale is spilled out to us bit by bit, entertaining us with Aethon’s wild search for a better world, we see that the very existence of the book — in the past, the present and the future — stitches together time.
I cannot tell you much more. Doerr brings each of these seven storylines to a conclusion with a delicate ballet-like dance that I cannot orchestrate. In the end, they are one story. The story of a single book that travels through time, nestled into the very heart of people’s lives.
I will tease you a bit:
- Konstance does not find Cloud Cuckoo Land in the ship library that’s supposed to contain all books. She finds it instead on the nightstand next to her father’s childhood bed in Australia; she spots it while strolling virtually through his hometown via Illium.
- Anna’s escapes the walls of Constantinople with the Diogenes’ codex. Omeir never enters the walls.
- Zeno’s fifth grade actors do not get blown up.
- Seymour ends up being a programmer for Illium.
- In his quest to find a better world, Aethon solves this riddle: “He that knows all the Learning ever writ, knowns only this.”
In the Author’s Notes, Anthony Doerr says this book was “intended as a paen to books.” It is.