Overview: Anthony Doerr asks us to save lots of ourselves by wanting past ourselves

On the Shelf

Cloud Cuckoo Land

By Anthony Doerr
Scribner: 640 pages, $30

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In Anthony Doerr’s astonishing, Pulitzer Prize-winning 2014 novel, “All the Light We Cannot See,” the central metaphor was blindness. In his new work, “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” it’s the ebook itself — or slightly the concept of the ebook. Certain volumes, codices and manuscripts are woven into the lives of his characters: A painstakingly translated story is learn aloud to a dying needleworker; Greek epics maintain two prisoners of conflict; books in a future outer-space library instruct a teenage woman about life on Earth.

As we debate the destiny of printed matter and the utility of its digital successors, Doerr’s bold novel has as a lot to say on the topic as Susan Orlean did in her biblio-history, “The Library Book.” Considered one of his storylines considerations Constantinople on the eve of the siege that lastly toppled its partitions after 1,000 years. The town’s legendary library was destroyed, however right here a lady named Anna, a seamstress skilled in filching its treasures, manages to carry on to a leatherbound manuscript containing tales by Antonius Diogenes involving a shepherd named Aethon and his seek for unknown lands. (Actual author, fictional ebook.)

This isn’t the place “Cloud Cuckoo Land” begins or ends. Within the current day, a gaggle of fifth-graders in Lakeport, Idaho, are rehearsing their model of Diogenes’ work, “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” on the native library. Their director is 86-year-old Zeno Ninis, a retired snowplow driver who turned fascinated with historical Greek texts throughout his Korean Battle service. There may be additionally, we all know from the beginning, a scholar named Seymour, and he has a bomb. However maintain that thought.

As Doerr weaves by means of Constantinople and a 3rd storyline, wherein 14-year-old Konstance (geddit?) lives along with her doting dad and mom in an area automobile named the Argos looking for a brand new liveable planet, we all know we’re deep inside a sequence of nested, time-shifted tales positive to remind some readers of a equally titled forebear, David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas.” Whereas each authors weave collectively totally different timelines, although, Doerr is much less concerned with world-building than world-connecting. His meta-narrative will not be a pointillistic patchwork however a seamless tapestry.

The Argos comprises meals printers that may produce “a nice risotto,” sacks of Nourish powder and programs for all the pieces from elimination to schooling. There may be additionally a being referred to as Sybil consisting of “a translucent cylinder that rises fourteen feet from floor to ceiling . . . a machine composed of trillions of golden threads, none thicker than a human hair.” Sybil’s tangles supply the comfort of Alexa, the all-seeing menace of a Nest doorbell (or is it HAL from “2001”?) and the tactile pleasures of an old style Encyclopedia Britannica, its pleather bindings providing Konstance each solace and solutions.

As she delves into the mysterious origins of Diogenes’ ebook, Konstance will study that crucial solutions are past even Sybil’s scope. And the reader involves study of the risks of secrets and techniques and misreadings — with penalties for Seymour, the younger eco-terrorist, in addition to Zeno, who hid his love for a male wartime comrade.

It was Zeno’s sorrow that targeted him on a decades-long examine of the Diogenes textual content. In that story, Aethon morphs into totally different animals as he journeys world wide, counterpoising the theme of fidelity in Doerr’s ebook — in all books — with the concept the one inevitability is change. Change in life, change in civilizations, change in an imperiled pure world.

In the end, Doerr seeks to remind us of the numerous methods we’re tied to that pure world, for good and in poor health. In Anna’s medieval story, nice armies depend on the fitting climate for assault. Her touring companion, a younger ox-team driver named Omeir, is determined by the bounty and mercy of the seasons. Zeno suffers the chilly Korean mud however finds peace in Idaho’s snowbanks. And Konstance spends hours on her Perambulator, sporting her high-tech Vizer, nearly traversing the globe from Nigeria to Greece to Bosnia, hungry for the now-vanishing world.

It isn’t till Konstance learns to learn a set of fastidiously positioned clues that she realizes the atlas she’s been utilizing hasn’t been correctly interpreted. Except you understand what to search for, you would possibly assume our lives are as anodyne as Lakeport in 2020, with its SUVs and McMansions. You would possibly miss factors of contact hidden within the textual content — as when Seymour dubs a uncommon owl Trustyfriend, a reputation he most likely picked up from Zeno’s teachings on Aristophanes’ “The Birds.”

The characters in “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” from the would-be bomber to 10-year-olds making papier-mâché heads to a lady marooned on a spaceship, unite by means of acts of translation.

Each story, Doerr appears to say, requires interpretation and deep consideration. Shouldn’t that be so for the story of Earth too? We people have been so busy enthusiastic about our personal survival, by means of struggling and conflict and pure disasters, that we’ve paid little thoughts to the residing, respiratory system that sustains us.

On the finish of the novel, Konstance breaks by means of a wall. It’s certainly one of a number of sudden turns revealing, above all, that Doerr nonetheless hopes for human redemption. Does he imagine in it? What issues extra is whether or not the reader does — whether or not now we have the desire to breach the partitions now we have constructed.

Patrick is a contract critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.

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