I (very) briefly mentioned Anthony Doerr back in 2019 when I finally got around to reading 'All The Light We Cannot See' and I have been promising myself for several days that I would try and do justice to 'Cloud Cuckoo Land'. I will fail to. I keep trying, and reading, and planning to sit and reflect, but then remind myself that I am not supposed to beat myself up about it. I want writers out there to know that their efforts are appreciated. That their stories are making life better.
In many ways Cloud Cuckoo Land is similar in structure to All The Light, although it revolves around a story written by Antonius Diogenes and the impact that it has over the centuries. The two young people in this story drift inexorably towards each other during the downfall of Constantinople in 1453; Omeir having been forced to join the invading Ottoman army and Anna inside the city, working as a bad embroiderer and trying to learn Greek. In other parts of the story Zeno is a soldier in the Korean war and then an old man, also learning Greek and sharing his love of Diogenes' story with some local schoolchildren. Konstance (I just realised, appropriately named) lives in the future, on a centuries long space journey to a new world, who's connection to the story saves her life. Again what I loved most about the book was the characters and how I became involved in their various fates. It is essentially what I want from my reading, to care about the people and their story, to feel invested in what becomes of them, to feel their joys and share their sorrow.
Soldiers arrive at Omeir's home, and take his oxen, and himself as their teamster:
"Little whorls of sawdust rise through the lamplight and melt back into the shadows. 'When they saw your oxen,' he says, 'their heads nearly fell off their necks,' but he does not laugh and does not look up from his work.
Omeir sits against the wall. A particular combination of dung and smoke and straw and wood shavings make a familiar warm tang in the back of his throat and he bites back tears. Each morning comes along and you assume it will be similar enough to the previous one - that you will be safe, that your family will be alive, that you will be together, that life will remain mostly as it was. Then a moment arrives and everything changes." (p.64)
Zeno, after he returns from a year as a prisoner of war:
"In the dresser drawer the Plywood Plastic soldiers slumber in their tin box. Soldier 401 marches uphill with his rifle. Soldier 410 kneels behind his anti-tank gun. He gets into the same brass bed he slept in as a boy but the mattress is too soft and the day keeps getting brighter. Eventually he hears Mrs Boydstun go out and he creeps down the stairs and unlatches every door in the house. He needs them unlocked at the least, open at best. Then he tiptoes into the kitchen, finds a loaf of bread, tears it in half, puts one half beneath his pillow and divides the other between his pockets. Just in case.
He sleeps on the floor beside his bed. He is not quite twenty years old." (p.340)
In the prisoner of war camp Zeno meets and falls in love with Rex. After years of yearning and searching he finds him again, but when he travels to London to visit he is unable to tell him, and leaves without speaking of it:
"Horns honk and Rex glances behind them. 'Don't be so quick to dismiss yourself,' he says. 'Sometimes the things we think are lost are only hidden, waiting to to rediscovered.'
Zeno gets out of the car, suitcase in his right hand, books under his left arm, something inside him (regret) thrusting to and fro like a spearman, pulverizing bone, destroying vital tissue. Rex leans over and puts out his right hand and Zeno squeezes it with his left, as awkward a handshake as there's ever been. Then the little car is swallowed by the traffic." (p.408)
Stay safe. Be kind. Read this book.