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Cloud Cuckoo Land
by Anthony Doerr
When asked about the title of his book, Anthony Doerr says: ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’ was a phrase invented by the comic playwright Aristophanes’ 2,400 years ago in “The Birds,” one his few plays that survives to this day. In the centuries since, a ‘cloud cuckoo land’ has been used to describe any number of fanciful worlds… In my novel, I hope to embrace the full range of contemporary and historical meanings of the phrase, from a beautiful utopia where there is no suffering, to an absurd and over-optimistic fantasy.
Cloud Cuckoo Land is a book within a fabulous book! The book, in fact an archaic Greek text, is completely imagined by Doerr but he attributes it to a real writer of the ancient world, Antonius Diogenes. Doerr imagines that Diogenes has written a piece of entertainment for his niece, to distract and cheer her up during a life-threatening illness. It tells of a “a dull-witted mutton-headed lamebrain shepherd”, Aethon who longs to travel to an avian paradise he’s heard about, a city in the sky. To get to the city and enter it, Aethon must be a bird and not a human so he seeks help transforming himself into a bird. But the spell goes wrong and Aethon spends 80 years being a man, 1 year a donkey, 1 year a sea bass and 1 year a crow. As Elizabeth Knox says in the Guardian It is clear from the opening chapters of Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land that the novel’s characters, in their different time periods, will have something to do with this book inside a book, whether as champion, custodian or threat.
And so we follow the five characters living in three different times in history:
1439 Constantinople: There’s Omeir, a boy cursed at birth by his harelip, whose oxen have been requisitioned for the siege of Constantinople and separately, inside the besieged city, the orphaned seamstress Anna, also thirteen, desperately trying to care for her ill sister and determined to learn to read.
2020 Idaho: There’s 80 year old Zeno Ninis who, as the book opens, is directing a play he’s written for children at the local library. The rehearsal is terrifyingly interrupted by Seymour Stuhlman, who’s armed and carrying an explosive device. Seymour is a lonely, socially-challenged young man who has become a radical since developers encroached on the wilderness he loves.
Mid 22nd century: There’s a young teenager called Konstance who is traveling on a spacecraft in search of a more promising and habitable planet than the blighted Earth she and her fellow passengers have left behind.
Cloud Cuckoo Land — Anthony Doerr Do take a listen to Anthony explaining his book in his own words.
Sorry about the lengthy review but I do want to do the book justice! This is such a wonderful read about interconnectedness – with each other, with other species, with those who lived before us and those who will come after us – and the need to take great care of them all. And, of course, it’s about the triumph and joy of books! Happy sigh!
here is a kind of book a seasoned writer produces after a big success: large-hearted, wide in scope and joyous…a deep lungful of fresh air – and a gift of a novel – The Guardian
a paean to the nameless people who have played a role in the transmission of ancient texts and preserved the tales they tell. But it’s also about the consolations of stories and the balm they have provided for millenniums. It’s a wildly inventive novel that teems with life, straddles an enormous range of experience and learning, and embodies the storytelling gifts that it celebrates. It also pulls off a resolution that feels both surprising and inevitable, and that compels you back to the opening of the book with a head-shake of admiration at the Swiss-watchery of its construction. – the New York Times
It is tragedy and comedy and myth and fable and a warning and a comfort all at the same time – npr
Sprawling and ambitious and imaginative… [Doerr] is a writer with the rare ability to achieve the universal and the specific simultaneously. His stories, both vast and intimate, are dazzling, sometimes dizzying in their scope… unlike anything you’ve ever read. – San Francisco Chronicle
Doerr’s characters are astoundingly resilient, suggesting that we may yet save ourselves, with literature an essential tool – Boston Globe