This Friday we have a guest blogger: please welcome District 323 community member, Amy Salamon!
How can I leave my mark on the world? What do kids in 1450 Constantinople have to do with me? And who says ancient stories like The Odyssey are irrelevant when much newer and exciting media is being made?
Fortunately, Anthony Doerr has an answer to these questions in Cloud Cuckoo Land. His latest book connects three very distinct periods with the text of this 1800-year-old (fictional) story that touches and binds the characters’ lives.
There are Anna and Omeir, living in 15th century Constantinople – the pinnacle of art and culture, but also on the brink of war. Against cultural norms, Anna learns to read. Wanting more for her life than sewing in a convent, she explores the city and finds a moldy, crumbling, ancient copy of a story called Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Zeno is an ancient Greek scholar living in 2020 Idaho who spends his solitary, introspective post-POW life perfecting that lost language and recreating an English script of Cloud Cuckoo Land. Against his better judgment, he is roped into directing five curious middle schoolers in a stage production of his beloved work. Unbeknownst to the group of them, siege comes to their place in history as well. It’s a siege led by Seymour, who is fiercely connected to an unpopular belief.
And Doerr’s story propels us into space – the craft Argos en route to colonizing a new world circa the year 2100(ish). Konstance, never having set foot on Earth, devours her father’s memories of terrestrial life and helps him grow the ship’s garden – both plants they need for food and frivolous ones just for their enjoyment. Her life also comes under siege, literally when illness breaks out and she is quarantined. Figuratively in the kind of knowledge, the ship’s intelligence allows her to have. Guess which book she discovered was a part of her father’s life.
The book Cloud Cuckoo Land cited inside Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land (I know, it can get confusing) is a lost Greek text telling the Homerian journey of Aethon. A mere shepherd, he wanted to be turned into a bird to reach a mythical city in the clouds to live in paradise. Of course, there are setbacks and a lesson he learns at the end of his journey. The characters in Doerr’s narrative follow Aethon’s story, and their circumstances mirror his. As Aethon makes foolish decisions, so do the others. As they become trapped in their own lives, so does Aethon. As Konstance struggles against authority and Zeno wants his life to matter, and Anna needs to feed her curiosity, Aethon contemplates his own place in the world.
Yes, we know humans at all points in time are connected. We want to love and be loved. We are afraid of death. Sure, maybe nothing ever really changes. But that’s missing the bigger point.
“Sometimes the things we think are lost are only hidden, waiting to be rediscovered.”Doerr 408
THAT is why.
Zeno may have explained it to his young play cast better:
“’ You ever see a superhero movie? Where the hero keeps getting beat up, and it always seems like he-
‘Or she,’ says Olivia.
‘-or she will never make it? That’s what these fragments are: superheroes. Try to imagine the epic battles they survived over the last two thousand years: floods, fires, earthquakes, failed governments, thieves, barbarians, zealots, who knows what else? We know somehow a copy of this text made it to a scribe in Constantinople nine or ten centuries after it was first written, and all we know about him-‘
‘or her,’ says Olivia.
‘is this tidy handwriting, leaning slightly to the left….Erasure is always stalking us, you know? So to hold something in your hands that has evaded it for so long-‘”Doerr 489
At its heart, Cloud Cuckoo Land wrestles with annihilation. How do we live when our familiar way of life has been eradicated? Can we adjust? Do we fall? What happens when the only people who remember us are gone? What do we leave behind in this world?
Doerr has answers, and their foundations are all in hope, perseverance, and discovery. The characters’ lives all come to a turning point, and they all make it through because of these qualities woven through time.
Maybe that’s why they could leave a lasting legacy on the world: a legacy waiting to be rediscovered.
Look for a copy of Cloud Cuckoo Land at your local independent bookstore, or shop at Bookshop.org instead of a big box store or site; the proceeds help support independent bookstores. Here’s why we ought to do that!