It’s possible, but not certain, that the city named “Cloud Cuckoo Land” dates back to an Aristophanes story “The Birds” written in 414 B. C. E. “…how long had those tablets moldered inside that chest, waiting for eyes to read them? While I am sure you will doubt the truth of the outlandish events they relate, my dear niece, in my transcription, I do not leave out a word. Maybe in the old days men did walk the earth as beasts, and a city of birds floated in the heavens between the realms of men and gods. Or maybe, like all lunatics, the shepherd made his own truth, and so for him, true it was. But let us turn to his story now, and decide his sanity for ourselves.” (pg.14)
So, we start with a book, an old, old book, a book that has been wet and attacked by mold and lost for uncounted amounts of time. We end with the book in a new form, translated by Zeno Ninis who learned Greek from his fellow prisoner in a POW camp in the Korean War. The book may be fiction, and the characters may be fiction but the power of a great story to offer hope, to mellow grief, to calm anxiety has been a factor in many of our lives.
Anthony Doerr wrote All the Light You Cannot See. If he never wrote another book that one volume would be enough to keep him in my list of great authors. But here is another great book that stretches from the siege of Constantinople to sometime in the future. In the legend there is a shepherd who hears the tale of Cloud Cuckoo Land, and he learns that if you get to that land, you will be satisfied; that restlessness and yearning will no longer hound you. In the clouds where the birds circle the cloud towers is peace. But humans cannot go there, only animals. The shepherd uses magic, but it backfires, and he turns into a donkey. You will hear this story repeated in every age and the tale works its magic on many humans, even though they cannot expect to find Cloud Cuckoo Land unless they are transformed by the gods because of their deeds into a bird who can fly there. There is more to the shepherd’s story, but you should discover it for yourself.
Two characters are alive at the siege of Constantinople – Omeir and Anna. Anna finds the old manuscript when she is trying to save the life of her sister. Zeno begins his life about 18 years before the Korean War. The Cunningham sisters are librarians at the local library in Lakeport, Idaho. They introduce Zeno to the Greek writers, especially Aristophanes and his birds. There are birds everywhere in this story, especially owls. Seymour lives in the same place as Zeno, but when Seymour is a young man Zeno is in his eighties. Seymour has a mental disorder that involves hypersensitivity to sounds. His mother Bunny is patient but must work two jobs to support the two of them. Once Seymour disobeys Bunny and goes to the woods behind their double-wide he begins to communicate with a Great Grey Owl, and he finds peace in nature. When developers buy the land and remove the forest Seymour’s anger cannot be eased. We also have Konstance who is travelling aboard the Argos to a new earth she will not live long enough to see.
Perhaps an homage to books, because of the lengths people go to save this book and because of the number of different historical contexts in which the story lives in the minds of readers; perhaps a coming-of-age story, there is yet another aspect of Doerr’s book that speaks about the damages done to our modern world, and the possible dystopia that awaits. “In late August, twin forest fires in Oregon burn a million acres each, and smoke gushes into Lakeport. The sky turns the color of putty, and anyone who steps outdoors returns smelling like a campfire. Restaurant patios close, weddings move inside, youth sports are canceled; the air is deemed too dangerous for children to play outside.” (pg. 487)
Konstance, in the Argos seems to be the only person left after her fellow travelers die in an epidemic that sweeps through the ship. She has her “perambulator” and access to a prodigious digital library. She makes it through a year of solitude by cutting up pieces of her 3D-printer powdered food sacks and writing down the stories her father told her about a donkey and a place called Cloud Cuckoo Land. If you like fantasies there is plenty of that; but it you require realism, there is also plenty of that. What book would you take with you if you could only take one. So many found exactly what they needed in Antonius Diogenes’ 24 Folios about a place called Cloud Cuckoo Land. The connections made between characters and eras in this book may remind you of your own eureka moments when your brain made similar connections as you read books and learned your way through life.