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Our Lives Are Bound up in Books
The Impact of Stories Lost and Rediscovered. Reviewing ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’ by Anthony Doerr
In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, the ibis-headed god Theuth recommends writing to enhance human memory. And Herodotus wrote The Histories, as he explained, “so that people would not forget.” But what happens when a book vanishes?
Until the age of print only a handful of copies of any given manuscript might exist. And any of those might succumb to age, wear, tear, war, natural disasters, erasure and reuse, or people‘s lack of ongoing interest. Unless at least one of those copies was recopied through the years, the work would be lost.
Only about a third of Aristotle’s works are still around. Many ancient works exist today in name alone, and God knows how many have been lost entirely. Borrowing an extinction model from environmental studies, researchers estimate about 90 percent of medieval manuscript copies are no more. Once you weed out redundancies, the model indicates about a third of the works they contain have gone the way of the passenger pigeon and dodo. Even a book cataloging lost books can be lost.
The age of print improved the chances for survival, but vulnerabilities persist. World War II, for instance, destroyed books by the millions.
We sometimes know what we’ve lost. Lost works might receive comment in surviving books, describing their contents or even reproducing bits and pieces. The pagan author Celsus, as an example, wrote a scathing attack on Christianity around 170 CE entitled The True Word. No copies survive, but scholars can reconstruct much of the text from quotes in another book written in response, Origen’s Contra Celsus.
Likewise, Antonius Diogenes penned an adventure tale by the name of The Wonders Beyond Thule (probably in the second century CE), known mostly because the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, Photios the Great, wrote a plot summary in the ninth century. And that, oddly enough, is the starting point for Anthony Doerr’s novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Doerr’s story unfolds as a patchwork of interconnected narratives, including a reimagining of Diogenes’ ancient tale. A shepherd named Aethon tires of ridicule from his friends and decides to escape to a land “far from the troubles of men . . . where no one ever suffered and everyone was wise.” Aethon imagines “rivers of broth gush[ing] from spigots, tortoises circulat[ing] with honeycakes balanced on their backs, and wine [running] in channels down both sides of the streets.”
Unfortunately, this wonderful land floats somewhere between earth and heaven. Aethon must become a bird. But the magic he employs to transform himself goes terribly wrong, and he becomes a donkey instead. The farce continues as Aethon temporarily morphs into a fish before finally getting his wings and finding the fabled land in the air.
In Doerr’s telling, Diogenes’ book has been rediscovered in the modern era. Zeno Ninis, one of the novel’s principal characters, translates the manuscript as images of the folios are published online. The pages bear the marks of age and neglect, and portions are irrecoverable. Still, Zeno soldiers on.
Working in his neighborhood library, he’s roped into staging a play of Diogenes’ outlandish story with local children. Zeno found solace in that same library a lifetime before when, as the motherless child of an immigrant father, he wandered inside on a winter’s day. “Sometimes all you need are the Greeks,” says the librarian, holding a book of verse, “to fly you all the way around the world to somewhere hot and stony and bright.”
But as the children rehearse their play with Zeno all those years later, a misguided revolutionary, Seymour, enters the building and stashes a backpack of explosives hoping to damage the offices nextdoor of a property developer. Seymour has no idea Zeno and the children are present.
How did Diogenes’ story survive the gauntlet of history? For that Doerr introduces us to Anna and Omeir, both of whom lives on opposite sides of the fall of Constantinople in the fifteenth century. Anna is a young orphan girl who, after learning how to read, ends up helping a boy steal manuscripts from a derelict monastery. Wealthy Italians in the city will pay for ancient books. Diogenes’ strange tale is among the manuscripts Anna recovers—one she keeps for herself, perhaps the very copy Photios read and summarized centuries before.
Anna and Omeir’s paths cross after the Turks overrun the city. She flees with the book in hand. Eventually, thanks to Omeir, it lands in Urbino and then finally the Vatican Library. But after its twenty-first century rediscovery and translation, the story finds renewed life many centuries into the future.
Konstance lives aboard the Argos, a spaceship bound for a habitable planet in a distant solar system. Passengers recognize they will not survive the entire journey; they are a “bridge generation.” But their job is to foster human culture aboard the ship until their descendants arrive.
Their journey is aided by a powerful AI assistant and central computer named Sybil, whose name hearkens back to ancient Greek oracles. When a mysterious illness breaks out on the ship, Konstance—isolated from the rest of the passengers, including her family—must figure out what has happened. Unfortunately, Sybil knows only so much.
Zeno, Seymour, Anna, Omeir, Konstance all live in little pockets of disconnected time. Doerr weaves their lives together in a remarkable tale, creating narrative momentum as the telling shuttles back and forth through the centuries. The one thing they all have in common? Diogenes’ fantastical little book and the role it plays in their lives: a found treasure in Constantinople, a puzzle and plaything in an American library, a clue in mystery somewhere in space.
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