What his mother and sister distribute among the men, the honey and preserves, the pickled cabbage and the trout, the sheep’s cheese, the dried venison, comprises almost all of their food for the winter. Many of the men wear cloaks and daggers like woodsmen, whilst others dress in cloaks of fox fur or camel hide and at least one wears ermine with the teeth still attached, most have daggers attached to girdles about their waists and everyone speaks of the spoils their going to win from a great city in the south.
Books are fragile, they die, so little of the literature from ancient Greece has reached us, and that often copied and re-copied or translated. But books can free us, change our perceptions, even give us a reason to live. In this tale, Anthony Doerr rells us of such a book, a fictitious work by Antonius Digenes, Cloud Cuckoo Land, its journey to us and through to the future, of librarys and mankinds vain attempts to assemble all knowledge. We discover Cloud Cuckoo Land and its influence on a number of people in this intertwined tale.
We pick up the story and the first of our characters at the siege and fall of Constantinople in 1453, we meet Omeir as the army moving towards this city with the unpenetrable walls at the moment that he is engaged and the immensity of the tasks they must catty out as illustrated in the opening quote
We meet Anna, a seamstress living in what has become an almost illiterate city just before the arrival of the Ottomans, of her learning to read from a dying and drunken Greek living in their city walls, of her finding books in a forgotten and crumbling monastry and selling them to Venitians who have come in search of knowledge for their libraries. As she reads one of the codexes to her dying sister we learn of Ethan the goatheard and his journey in the fantastic old tale and the peace it brings her sister.
She has grown quicker at deciphering the tidy left leaning script inside the old codex and by now can lift lines off the page without trouble. Whenever she comes to a word she does not know or lacunas where mould has obliterated the text she invents replacements, Ethan has managed to become a bird at last, not the resplendent owl he hoped but a bedraggled crow. He flaps across a limitless sea searching for the end of the earth, only to be swept up by a water spout. So long as Anna keeps reading Maria seems to be at peace.
Through Anna and Omeir, the story reaches modern day, being uncovered in the Vatican library. The only timeline where the link with the book is not apparent is that of Konstance, travelling on an interstellar spaceship leaving the Earth behind to implant life on a faraway planet with her family and a group of other passengers, and of course a computer containing “all the knowledge of the world”:
Konstance stands in the library atrium touching the place on her work suit where mother stitched a pine seedling four years before, mrs flowers’ little dog stares up at her and wags his tail, he is not real, the desk beneath her fingertips feels like wood, sounds like wood, smells like wood, the slips in the box look like paper feel like paper, smell like paper, none of it is real.
In the present day, Zeno, an 80 year old Korean war veteran is putting on a school play called Cloud Cuckoo Land by Antonius Diogenes when Seymour, a disturbed adolescent, worrying about the planet comes into the library with a bag packed with explosives:
He remembers how it felt, his whole body taught when he sprung the lid off the crate of pawpaws old grenades for the first time, all that latent power, never before has someone articulated his own anger and confusion like this. Wait they said, be patient they said, technology will solve the carbon crisis. In Kyoto, in Copenhagen, in Doha in Paris they said we’ll cut emissions we’ll wean ourselves off hydrocarbons and they rolled back to the airport in armour plated limos and flew home on Jumbo jets and ate sushi at 30000 feet in the air while poor people choked on the air in their own neighbourhoods. Waiting is over, patience is over we must rise up now before the whole world is on fire.
Why take explosives into a library? who are all of these characters and how are the present day and the future linked, I’ll give you a guess. Get this wonderful read and find out.
First Published in English as “Cloud Cuckoo Land” in 2021 by Fourth Estate