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Book Review: Cloud Cuckoo Land

By Robert McCool

Let's celebrate librarians.

Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Doerr's (“All The Light We Cannot See”) 2021 release, Cloud Cuckoo Land (Scribner, ISBN 978-1-9821-8967-9) is dedicated to librarians: past, present, and future. Some of the novel occurs within a library in whatever time and location is being reported in these joined stories of five distinctly different characters. 

Books with multiple characters and different eras are not a new thing. Few characters have enough time to fully develop into heroes. But in this 622 page-turner, all five protagonists actually live and breathe within their  independent lives: in the 1453 siege of Constantinople by the Saracens, within the 1980s, and in the 22nd century on a “generation ship” in outer space.

This is also a novel about preservation. Mostly the preservation of an ancient book called, “Cloud Cuckoo Land” from a time before history. This book has faced destruction many times but survived and influenced those who read it. Unlike our Earth, which faces all kinds of destruction every day, where we refuse to do what is needed to preserve our very small planet.

The engaging characters are Zeno, who in his eighties, lives in 2018; Seymour Stulman, also in our recent past; Omeir with his two oxen at the tall walls surrounding the great city of Constantinople; and Anna inside those walls, the where she discovers  “Cloud Cuckoo Land” in a moldering tower library.

There is one more person's story being told. Aethon, whose mishaps and adventures are the story in “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” originally written in ancient Greek. His is a ridiculous tale of transformation into a donkey, then a crow who seeks the golden castle in the sky; where there is no war, plenty of food to eat and the ability to be transformed back into his unfortunate human form. Aethon has a hare-lip, which separates him from those around him. His story is funny at times and he is frustrated by the shape that he is. As a donkey he desires to be a great grey owl able to fly high enough to reach the golden city in the clouds.

Zeno spends most of his 2018 life in a library, where he is preserving and presenting a play written by Diogenes in ancient Greece, using local children as actors.

Seymour Stulman, in the same library with Zeno, is a budding teenage ecco-terrorist who's outrage over the death of an owl by land developers propels him into a self-destructive mission. He wants to make a statement that will be heard by everyone. This is the beginning of the book's take on climate change, deforestation and destruction of other species.

Omeir is drafted into the Saracen's war on Constantinople. His oxen will help pull a massive cannon to the city's walls. Without proselytizing, Omeir's story causes us to consider the destruction of war, with human death tolls and the rape of the land.

Anna, an orphan, lives on the inside of those same city walls, making a living by embroidering priest's vestments. At night she climbs the outside of a tower library in order to retrieve manuscripts that are sold to visiting scholars. This is when she discovers the heavily damaged “Cloud Cuckoo Land” book. She keeps the old book and works to preserve it, eventually reading it to a new generation of children.

And so, speaking of generations, Konstance lives in a generation ship in the 22nd century, on its way to a new planet, since our Earth is on the brink of death. A generation ship is one that takes generations to preserve humanity, with the original families breeding and dying on the way to a promising planet. Her father intentionally locks her in a safe room while all the crew dies, leaving her all alone with an extension of the omnipresent main computer that dedicates itself to preserving Konstance's life. There is a library that allows her to explore her small world. The horrors of the last throes on her home world are a cautionary tale to those of us who live on the Earth and create new generations of people who will do what they want, regardless of the fragility of our Earth and what is in front of their faces.

This book left me thinking about it for long after I set it down. I actually dreamed a segment of the story. That dream was as confusing as Cloud Cuckoo Land can be at times, resounding in my sleeping brain. But It's a long, long story about people that are roughly alike. It's a story about a book that changed lives, like one could now if we just listen enough.

I applaud Anthony Doerr's dedication to all librarians, as they have been most influential in my life, too.


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