Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr, USA, 2021

Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr, USA, 2021

This is a beautiful, if very unusual, book about life and the importance of stories and love. At its centre is an old, mouldy, ancient text supposed to have been written by Antonius Diogenes. The text came into being when Diogenes discovered, hidden in a chest in a tomb in Tyre, a strange anecdote about a shepherd called Aethon. He then rewrote it for his niece who was ill at the time. In the story Aethon wants to become a bird, but first he turns into a donkey and then a fish and finally into a crow. As a crow he meets an extremely tall goddess and is given an important choice to make. The discovery of the text and Diogenes’ subsequent tale are fictional though Diogenes was an actual author who lived in the second century AD.

The story of Aethon is woven through five other stories. From the mid-fifteenth century there are two narratives, one focused on Anna from Constantinople and the other on Omeir from Bulgaria. Twentieth- and twenty-first-century USA form the background to stories about two very different men: Seymour and Zeno. Finally there is the story of Konstance, who lives on a space ship at some time in the future. These five stories are not related separately, but like Aethon’s story, are intertwined.

The expression cloud cuckoo land describes someone who lives in a world of fantasy without seeming to understand reality. The characters in Doerr’s book are all dreamers, but at the same time they are all very real. Anna is the poor waif who finds the text and desperately wants to learn to read. Disfigured Omeir is kindness and gentleness personified, motivated only by goodness. Zeno, who served in Korea and who eventually translates Diogenes’ text, spends his life unable to admit that he is attracted to men. Seymour, lonely and different with an affinity for animals and nature, has a deep sense of what is right and what is wrong. Konstance is the character who is finally able to connect the dots.

It is somewhat unbelievable that the lives of all these different people can be tied together by a text written in ancient Greek, but Doerr manages the task while retaining the reader’s interest in each separate story. Although there are many characters and time periods, the stories glide into each other and there is no confusion. It is a delight to see how all the characters are brought together against a background that not only includes the text but also climate change, historical conflicts, environmental issues and the love one human being has for another.

Anthony Doerr (Wyoming News)

The inscription on the chest within the tomb read: Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you. Read Cloud Cuckoo Land and prepare to be amazed.

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