2021 is passing with the speed of light. As well as climate change, the virus and brexit supply shortages in the UK, I was worrying about reaching the end of 2021 without finding a personal book of the year.
This was a real possibility until last week when I downloaded a copy of Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land. For everyone (like me) who is tired of ‘genre’ fiction, ie, books written to fit into publisher’s and bookseller’s certain categories, here is one that spans the whole lot! And I absolutely loved it. No doubt it helps to have won a Pulitzer prize when attempting this extraordinary feat of course – at least when it comes to selling books. But apparently Doerr himself has called this book “my attempt at a literary-sci-fi-mystery-young-adult-historical-morality novel”. (Cordelia Jenkins, FT Weekend, 17th October).
And what an attempt it is.
The Argos is a spaceship hurtling towards planet BetaOph2. Inside a few remaining members of the human race are travelling, hoping to start afresh elsewhere in the solar system, the earth having become uninhabitable. The ship is run by a computer called Sybil, somewhat redolent of Viki in Asimov’s I, Robot But BetaOph2 is light years away. Those generations that are currently on board the Argos will never reach their destination alive. Only their descendants of descendants may do so. Konstance, a teenage girl, is trapped on board. She has only the ship’s virtual Atlas to show her what the earth looked like – never having physically seen it. She is told that she should be honoured to be part of this attempt to create a new life for the descendants of the human race. But Konstance, not unreasonably, wants her own life.
Centuries earlier, the last days of the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople. A young orphaned girl, Anna works as a seamstress in the House of the cruel Kalaphates. The Ottoman army is rumbling towards the city with a terrifying new machine of war known as a canon. Desperate for money to help her ill sister, Anna finds herself recruited by a young man to scavenge books from a ruined abbey to sell to traders from other lands.
Zeno, a US veteran of a Korean POW Camp works in Lakeport library. In memory of a lost love, he spends hours painstakingly translating texts from ancient Greek and in particular a text called Cloud Cuckoo Land. In the same time span, post-millennium Seymour, aged 15, also from Lakeport, starts an Environmental Awareness Club at the library in which Zeno works. When Seymour looks around, he does not see that his own horror at the destruction of the natural world is recognised or shared by others. Seymour tries to take some awareness raising matters into his own hands, with disastrous results.
“permafrost melting, soil erosion … everything warming, melting and dying faster than scientists predicted…”
Doerr’s book spans thousands of years – apart from being human what can all these characters have in common? The answer is a text – a fictional codex – which Doerr attributes to 1st century Greek writer Diogenes. ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’, the text, tells the story of a Shepherd who becomes dissatisfied with his flock keeping duties and goes off in search of a mystical and mythical city in the sky that he has heard about.
Each of Doerr’s chaaracters falls upon this tale of the shepherd’s quest in different ways and each plays some part in saving it from destruction until it reaches Konstance on the spaceship Argos hurtling towards our no longer unimaginable future.
More than just a great story Cloud Cuckoo Land – is a love letter to our vanishing libraries and a plea for the preservation of written texts. It also deals with extremely relevant themes including climate catastrophe and a mystery virus. I very much hope that corporate billionaires currently tinkering with ideas of space travel will take a moment to read this book. Most of all though it is fascinating, readable and ultimately hopeful.
Doerr’s previous work, All the Light We Cannot See set during the World War 2, won the author a Pulitzer prize, but I found All the Light riddled with sentimentality – his work can suffer from too many motherless daughters with devoted fathers all being wonderful to each other. Even so we forgive him a bit of sentimentality for the sheer breadth of vision and the hard graft that must have been required to pull this off. Although it comes in at 640 pages, I read Cloud Cuckoo Land in a few days and was totally engrossed from first to last. Highly recommended as an excellent book to curl up with on a cold, wet afternoon.