Cloud Cuckoo Land: A Novel
The phrase “cloud cuckoo land” comes from the ancient comic Greek play, The Birds, by Aristophanes. Built by the birds as a place between gods and mortals, it came to refer to a kind of utopia, a literal “castle in the sky.” In Anthony Doerr’s ingenuous new novel, it stands both for a kind of perfect place and for the way stories connect us, which is the real ideal. In this version the phrase comes not from Aristophanes, but an invented Greek writer, Antonius Diogenes (not to be confused with the actual Diogenes, a cynic philosopher of the fifth century BCE). This Diogenes is an ancient writer of fables. His story provides the backbone for the many different plot lines that intersect in this capacious book.
Many novels feature two stories, two timelines even, that resonate off of each other, but Doerr gives us several to keep track of. At first it seems daunting to remember all the individual plotlines, but the narratives refract off each other, like different settings in a kaleidoscope. They intersect and echo each other in marvelous ways, connecting across the centuries (both past and future) and spanning continents.
The book embodies how stories live within us, connecting us not only to the characters we read about, but to the other readers of the same book. Books, libraries, language, translation are all themes that come together to demonstrate how stories shape us, our worlds, our destinies. As one character says:
“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 too. 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 word, the memory dies a second death.”
Another character describes translation as similarly mystical:
“Of all the mad things we humans do . . . there might be nothing more humbling, or more noble, than trying to translate the dead languages. We don’t know how the old Greeks sounded when they spoke, we can barely map their words onto ours; from the very start, we’re doomed to fail. But in the attempt . . . in trying to drag something across the river from the murk of history into our time, into our language: that was . . . the best kind of fool’s errand.”
A fool’s errand is precisely what Diogenes’ tale describes. It starts with a man called Aethon introducing himself as “the one they called birdbrain and nincompoop.” The absurdist plot takes the fool around the world and beyond. Aethon accidentally changes himself into a donkey, a fish, then a bird—all as he searches for cloud cuckoo land, a world free from hunger and war.
The magic of storytelling and translation combine as one of the earlier readers of Diogenes’ parable struggles first to read the Greek, then to decipher the lines where mold or worms have eaten the pages. The effort is worth it because she finds herself immersed in “the bright, ridiculous world of Aethon.” She sees the book as a container of sorts, holding a miracle:
“Open the box, walk the lines of sentences: the singer steps out, and breathes a world of color and noise into the space inside your head.”
That’s about as apt a description of what books do as any. And this book is a perfect example of that brilliant magic!