The book begins: “Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you.” Consider me amazed. The review excerpts in the front of the book gush with praise: “sings with beauty,” “sweeping and atmospheric,” “beautiful and enthralling. . . “ Yep. Anthony Doerr has said Cloud Cuckoo Land is a paean to books, but it is also a paean to great stories passed on through generations. Parts of the narrative may get lost, or changed by the teller, but a good story remains.
The book that is at the heart of the story is a greek comedy about a peasant who is turned into an ass, then a fish and finally a bird in his quest is a golden city in the clouds, Cloud Cuckoo Land. The book is found in 15th century Constantinople, 21st century Idaho, and in the future (possibly still in the 21st century?)
In Constantinople, a young girl, Anna, rebels against learning the tedious work of embroidery. She encounters Licinius, an old tutor who teaches her to read from some remnants of the book. He tells her:
“A text—a book—is a resting place for the memories of people who have lived before. A way for the memory to stay fixed after the soul has traveled on. . . But books, like people, die. They die in fires or floods or in the mouths of worms or at the whims of tyrants. If they are not safeguarded, they go out of the world. And when a book goes out of the world, the memory dies a second death.”
Not far a way, Omeir, born with a cleft palate, has been treated as a bad omen, a curse. His grandfather protects him and tells him stories. All is well until the sultan’s soldiers come. The family’s oxen are drafted into the war against Constantinople and Omeir, although still a child, along with them.
In the Lakeside,Idaho library, Zeno, in his eighties is helping a group of children stage a production of Cloud Cuckoo Land, when he hears gunshots downstairs. Seymour, a seventeen year old is frustrated and angry. Housing developments have destroyed the habitat of the grey owl he befriended as a child. Climate change is threatening the living creatures of the world and local activists suggest actions like eliminating plastic straws. He wants to take action, he believes he has been drafted into the resistance.
And then there is Konstance, aboard the Argos, an ark of sorts, hurtling through space having left Earth pointed to another planet that can support human life. Maybe. Her father tells her tales of Cloud Cuckoo Land.
The stories gradually weave together into a beautiful tapestry: big, vibrant and full of detail. It is full of humanity and pathos, truly a great read.