Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr is a literary tribute to the precarious life of books. An ancient, stained manuscript is found weeks before the fall of Constantinople in 1453. A girl named Mary smuggles the pages out of town as she flees the invasion. A group of children put on a play called “Cloud Cuckoo Land” in 2020 Idaho. Finally, Konstance, a girl on the ship that has left earth in search of a new planet 592 years away, is calmed when her father tells her of the land in the sky where the birds live among golden buildings and unlimited food stores. The three situations weave together as each character is touched by the story told in the old manuscript, “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” by Antonius Diogenes.
Every once in a while, you come across a beast of a novel and wonder, should I stick with this? This was one of those novels for me. Fortunately, I did stick with it. Then I thought – do I really want to review this book? And again, I decided that I should. Yes, I had to study some ancient Greek literature. Most of the information I found just made me more and more impressed with what Doerr did here. An ambitious novel deserves an ambitious review. Stick with me and you will not be disappointed.
Antonius Diogenes – Was he a Real Greek Writer?
You can read the entire novel by Anthony Doerr without knowing exactly who Antonius Diogenes is. If you don’t know much about ancient Greek literature, well, join the club. I’ll keep it simple. First, his name is kind of eerily similar to Anthony Doerr, isn’t it? Same initials, same name, different languages. I think it’s a total coincidence, but I find it to be interesting, nonetheless.
Antonius Diogenes is a real greek author. He’s believed to have lived in the 2nd Century. He wrote a romance novel called The Wonders Beyond Thule. It was written in twenty-four books, none of which remain or have been reproduced anywhere. The work is known mostly through a synopsis by Photius, who was the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople in the mid-to- late 800’s. Photius had written a Myriobiblos – a book that is a list of “books worth reading.” (I literally think they’re talking about Photius’s book blog, you guys.)
In this Myriobiblos, he provided a synopsis of Thune. According to Phobius, the novel is an epic journey with graceful descriptions, clarity, and vivid narration. At the point he writes it, historians believe that the book is over 600 years old. Using his synopsis, historians have pieced together several pieces of the plot. Two other ancient works reference Thune as a historical source, but offer little clue about the novel’s content.
All of this information about Diogenes is so obscure that the only reference on the author’s Wikipedia page is a guide to Greek literature written in 1870. Doerr has really outdone himself. And his last book won a Pulitzer so that’s saying something.
TLDR: Nothing exists of Diogenes’ Thune except a synopsis written 600 years later, and a few scraps of damaged papyrus. There are no copies known on Earth, and there have not been for centuries. It is lost to time.
For writers and readers alike, the thought of a great novel being lost to time sends a pang right into one’s heart. It is that “pang” from which Cloud Cuckoo Land rises.
Cloud Cuckoo Land: Kelly’s Review
Now that you know who Antonius Diogenes is, replace The Wonders Beyond Thule with Cloud Cuckoo Land. Anna, a young girl in Constantinople in the 1450’s, discovers bundles of old papyrus in an abandoned ruin. The ruin is an ancient monastery, and the papers that she finds are almost completely ruined. Water, mold, animals, and time have taken away most of the words. She has been taught to read and begins to read the story to her sister. As the city falls under attack, she flees. The book is one of her only possessions, and she keeps it with her as she escapes. The assumed timeline of Antionius Diogenes life means that this book was written is over 1,000 years before Anna finds it but knowing that Phobius knew of and could obtain a copy of it in the late 800’s means that the book could be as young as 600 years old, on papyrus.
Omeir is one of the men who joined Constantinople’s conquerors, but he deserted the night of the attack. He has a cleft palate and throughout his life, he has been seen as a cursed, evil boy. His family has loved him and kept him alive, even when babies like him would have been left to die at the time. He flees as the invasion starts, and he meets Anna. They share the story in the book. They escape. They’re poor farmers, and it’s the only book they ever read.
The night they escape, their world does not come to an end, like they thought it would.
Zeno Ninis is a young man from Idaho in the 1950’s. He’s drafted to serve in Korea. While there, he becomes a POW. He befriends another man, Rex Browning. Rex and Zeno are both gay men. Rex is an academic from London, where he is out and lives an open lifestyle. Zeno has never met another man like him and is extremely sheltered. During the day, Rex teaches Zeno greek. He writes famous Greek lines from literature in the sand or scratches them into wood, and Zeno learns to interpret them. He and Rex sleep next to each other every night on the dirt floor. By the end of their time together, Zeno is in love. With Rex, and with Greek literature. Eventually, they go home to their respective countries.
Zeno becomes a snowplow driver. He misses Rex, and does his best to send letters, hoping to find him. Fortunately, he finds Rex and they have a one-week visit in London. Rex has a partner, but he spends time with Zeno. He gives him a Greek to English translation book, and tells him, “Sometimes the things we think are lost are only hidden, waiting to be rediscovered.”
When Zeno retires, he begins translations. One day, the librarian at his local library shows him an article she has found online. An ancient novel, in pieces, has been uncovered in an archive at the Vatican. They’re scanning the papyrus scraps and will have them available to the public next week. It is Mary’s copy of Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Antonius Diogenes. Of course, the characters don’t know this, but the reader does.
In 2020, Seymour is a sensitive kid who loves the owls that nest behind his mother’s trailer. A new development near their land bulldozes the nearby forest. He becomes overwhelmed with the loss of the wildlife in the area and visits the library to study the animals and their habitats. Over time, he reads about all of the environmental damage humans have inflicted. He starts an environmental club at school. They do good work, but as he gets older, he gets angrier. He falls in with a radical environmental group online and decides to try to bomb the offices of the real estate company that was responsible for the development that sent the owls away.
A group of kids hear the story Zeno has translated and decide to put together a play. On the day of their dress rehearsal, while they rehearse on the second floor, Seymour enters the library with a backpack full of explosives and a firearm, so he can blow up the library wall that is shared with the realty office that is developing the land by his home.
Seymour believes the world will end on that day, but it does not.
Konstance is on the Argos, headed toward Beta Oph2, a planet that humanity believes has livable conditions. She is put to sleep by her father each night with a story he loved as a child. “Cloud Cuckoo Land.” It’s the very end of humanity, and the ship’s electronic library contains every book ever written. Well, every book that has survived long enough to be recorded digitally. When she and her father become separated, she seeks out the book, but cannot find it. The search for any sign of “Cloud Cuckoo Land” seems to be a dead end.
Konstance believes the world is ending, but it does not.
This novel is one of the few novels I’d dare to call a masterpiece. All of these different characters, at different times of life and in different situations, are all touched by this one story, as incomplete as it may be. They seek the story at times of their lives that are full of stress and fear, and it brings them comfort. And to think! The very last copy was rotting in an abandoned building, open to the elements, for 600 years! It was smuggled through a war zone and lost to an archive for another thousand.
This book demonstrates how powerful a story can be. To a burner of books, it demonstrates what a tragedy it is when a book is lost to time. In one passage of the book, a squire tells Anna why they are trying so hard to find as many ancient writings as they can.
“Time. Day after day, year after year, time wipes the old books from the world. The manuscript you brought us before? That was written by Aelian, a learned man who lived at the time of the Caesars. For it to reach us in this room, in this hour, the lines within it had to survive a dozen centuries. A scribe had to copy it, and a second scribe, decades later, had to recopy that copy, transform it from a scroll to a codex, and long after the second scribe’s bones were in the earth, a third came along and recopied it again, and all this time the book was being hunted. One bad-tempered abbot, one clumsy friar, one invading barbarian, an overturned candle, a hungry worm – and all those centuries are undone.”Anthony Doerr, Cloud Cuckoo Land
This novel is extraordinary. Throughout the two millenia in which this story lives, as all the characters live their lives and face their struggles, somehow the reader becomes enchanted. The survival of the book, of the earth, of the Argos – it becomes imperative. And while all the endings aren’t happy, they’re easier to take because they were made better by the story that they loved and preserved. Cloud Cuckoo Land will survive long after they’re gone.
I’m really glad I stuck with this book. The first half took me a little bit to really get into it but once I found the common thread of the stories I was hooked. This is the first book I’ve read in 2022 I give five stars.
Don’t listen to my word for it! There are a long list of recommendations and awards. A New York Times Notable Book ~ A Barack Obama Favorite ~ A National Book Award Finalist ~ Named a Best of the Year by Fresh Air, Time, Entertainment Weekly, Associated Press, Publishers Weekly, Cosmopolitan, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Oprah Daily, NPR, Time, BookPage, and now, Breezy Afternoons. 😉
Interviews with Anthony Doerr
Doerr did a lot of press work to promote this novel. I’ve included links to some of my favorites. Some tidbits I learned?
From the San Diego Union Tribune: “…my goal was to dramatize how a single copy of an ancient text tumbles through time – like a ball bouncing down through the pegs of one of those Plinko boards on the ‘The Price is Right.'”
From NPR: “I just started reading about the walls of Constantinople and how, among all the different kinds of wealth they preserved, was also books and book culture. And, you know, when you’re young, you think all the ancient texts that we have were all the ancient texts that were ever written. And so I’m just so interested in why certain things last and what we can do as people to be stewards of – both of human culture and, of course, of the natural world, too.”
This is an absolutely charming video of Doerr on CBS this Morning. It makes me want to call him and say, “you can do this!”
Among the most celebrated and beloved novels of 2021, Anthony Doerr’s gorgeous third novel is a triumph of imagination and compassion, a soaring story about children on the cusp of adulthood in worlds in peril, who find resilience, hope – and a book. In Cloud https://amzn.to/3vvXPKVCuckoo Land, Doerr has created a magnificent tapestry of times and places that reflects our vast interconnectedness – with other species, with each other, with those who lived before us, and with those who will be here after we’re gone.
Thirteen-year-old Anna, an orphan, lives inside the formidable walls of Constantinople in a house of women who make their living embroidering the robes of priests. Restless, insatiably curious, Anna learns to read, and in this ancient city, famous for its libraries, she finds a book, the story of Aethon, who longs to be turned into a bird so that he can fly to a utopian paradise in the sky. This she reads to her ailing sister as the walls of the only place she has known are bombarded in the great siege of Constantinople. Outside the walls is Omeir, a village boy, miles from home, conscripted with his beloved oxen into the invading army. His path and Anna’s will cross.
Like Marie-Laure and Werner in All the Light We Cannot See, Anna, Omeir, Seymour, Zeno, and Konstance are dreamers and outsiders who find resourcefulness and hope in the midst of gravest danger. Their lives are gloriously intertwined, and Doerr’s dazzling imagination transports us to worlds so dramatic and immersive that we forget, for a time, our own. Dedicated to “the librarians then, now, and in the years to come”, Cloud Cuckoo Land is a beautiful and redemptive novel about stewardship – of the book, of the Earth, of the human heart.
Cloud Cuckoo Land Book Club Questions
- Cloud Cuckoo Land is so much more than just a story to the people we follow in this story. Do you have a story or book like “Cloud Cuckoo Land in your life? What is it and why has it been important to you?
- The mural Anna finds in the archer’s turret depicts a golden city in the sky. Later, she finds the book and interprets the story in the image of the fresco. Did she find a depiction of Cloud Cuckoo Land or did her memory influence how she reads the story? When she and Omeir journey to home and family, is their journey comparable to Aetheon?
- Seymour is a character who does not understand the world around him. How does he compare to Zeno, Anna, Omeir, and Konstance?
- Each of these characters believe that their entire world may be coming to an end at one point, yet they all survive, and Cloud Cuckoo Land with them. Each of them also has a “coming home” moment. Is that why Zeno decides to place the scene where Aetheon finds the wild onions at the end, indicating that he left Cloud Cuckoo Land for his imperfect, but beloved home?
- Compare Aetheon’s journey to your favorite character’s journey. How are they similar? Does one influence the other?
- Omeir and Seymour both have animals as best friends. How are they similar in their lives? How are they different?
- The worlds is about done. You can move your family onto the Argos, where you or your children, depending on your age, will give birth and raise the generations that bridge the journey. Would you take this chance?
The above questions are my own. Doerr offers a reading guide with more questions here.