Cloud Cuckoo Land
By Anthony Doerr
Fiction/4th Estate/Paperback/625 pages/$30.94/Available here
4 out of 5
What do a seamstress in besieged 13th-century Constantinople, an old man in a small-town library in 2020 and a girl on an interstellar voyage have in common?
This unlikely story: Cloud Cuckoo Land, a lost Greek fable about a shepherd who transforms into a donkey, a fish and a crow on his journey to a city in the sky.
American author Anthony Doerr, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his World War II love story All The Light We Cannot See (2014, available here), spins a sweeping tale about the timeless power of books, libraries and storytelling.
In the hands of most, this would be a trite sentiment. Yet this metafictional epic, in the storied tradition of books about books, intricately plots its way to a pay-off that is sweet without being cloying.
All the narrators in the novel are living in times of crisis. Each believes himself or herself to exist at the end of things, as today's readers may well be feeling amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Anna, an orphan drudge in an embroidery house in Constantinople, learns to read in secret. But when her cruel master finds her texts, her older sister takes the fall and is so badly beaten she never fully recovers, forever tinging Anna's literacy with guilt.
Meanwhile, Omeir, a hare-lipped oxen herder, is drafted into the Ottoman Army, as it lays siege to Constantinople.
Fast-forward to 2020, where octogenarian Zeno Ninis is directing five students in his play at the public library of Lakeport, Idaho. Little do they know that Seymour, a troubled young man radicalised as an eco-terrorist, is about to plant a bomb in the stacks.
Far ahead in the future, 14-year-old Konstance comes of age aboard the Argos, a spaceship carrying the remnants of humanity away from a ravaged Earth towards a new planet. The Argos is run by Sybil, an artificial intelligence. Passengers eat 3D-printed food and work in a virtual reality library that contains the sum of all human knowledge.
At more than 600 pages, this is not a novel for the time-strapped, easily distracted reader. It could stand to be thinner, to be sure. But Doerr wants you to relish every flight of imagination, every meandering detour into a character's backstory, mapped against the vast sprawl of human existence - for, as Anna's secret tutor says, "a story is a way of stretching time".
Cloud Cuckoo Land both celebrates the power of literature to provide escape, consolation and hope, and locates its limits.
Characters produce escapist chestnuts like "Each of these books, child, is a door, a gateway to another place and time" or "If it's told well enough, for as long as the story lasts, you get to slip the trap".
Anna, in her oppressed life, daydreams of a library "to last until the end of time", full of books "free to anyone who can read them". The horror of Seymour's deed is compounded by it taking place in one such library, a space sanctified by selflessness.
And yet for Konstance, whose situation may strike too close to home for the pandemic-isolated reader, the digital library is ultimately not enough. No tree she sees in its virtual atlas "possesses the meticulous, staggering complexity of a single lettuce leaf" in her father's real-life farm. The library's exhaustive totality cannot make up for the real world that has been lost.
American writer Anne Boyer wrote in her essay Take Up And Read: "The world existed before books, and it always exists outside of them: that is, how a person should read is how a person must read, which is at least in duplicate, both always in this world and looking for another."
Doerr seeks to show how to read at the end of the world - both as a way out and a way in, all at once.
If you like this, read: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (Hodder & Stoughton, 2004, reissued 2019, $18.95, available here), another metafictional tale of six nested stories that stretch from an island in the South Pacific in the 19th century to a post-apocalyptic future.