“The City of Clouds and Birds”, by Anthony Doerr: the power of books

The City of Clouds and Birds

by Anthony Doerr

Translated from English (US) by Marina Boraso

Albin Michel, 694 pages, €24.90

Five characters, three eras and a mysterious manuscript from Greek antiquity… That’s if we had to sum up in a few words the highly anticipated latest novel by the American Anthony Doerr, Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for All the light we can’t see.
A novel that has met with such success that expectations are high when one immerses oneself in reading this sum of nearly 700 pages.

The first of the five characters encountered is Konstance. The year is 2146, the girl is traveling on a spaceship called Argos. He rushes towards the Beta Oph2 exoplanet, guided by Sybil, an artificial intelligence which watches over him and gathers the knowledge of humanity, which we guess is on the verge of extinction.

A mysterious manuscript

The reader barely has time to understand what is at stake when the story stops in 2020. Here it is this time in the public library of Lakeport, in Idaho. Zeno, an octogenarian veteran of the Korean War, prepares a performance of a play there with students, while a young eco-terrorist, heavily armed, present a few meters from them plots a bad coup.

Before knowing more about the intentions of this Seymour and what motivates him, it will be necessary to go through Constantinople in the 15th century, and Bulgaria. Here is Anna, a young apprentice embroiderer, and Omeir, a herdsman afflicted with a nasty cleft lip that condemns him to the life of an outcast… The link between all these characters and these eras? A mysterious manuscript, lost, then found and lost again that will cross the life of each of them and time. Written by the Greek Diogenes, this incomplete text recounts the sometimes incredible adventures of a shepherd and his multiple transformations (sometimes into a donkey, bird, or fish…), before reaching the famous celestial city of birds and clouds.

Confusing first steps

The project seemed extravagant, the result is dense, rhythmic, documented, moving, teeming with details, metaphors… The author mixes it all up at a frantic pace, in a multitude of short chapters. It multiplies the back and forth in time and the life of the protagonists. If the first steps in this novel are confusing, we are quickly caught up in the story, embarked on the universe of Anthony Doerr. As was already the case in his previous novel, he meticulously and patiently weaves his web, achieving a romantic feat that has just won over the jury for the 2022 American Literature Grand Prix.

To support his reflection, which is to show the saving power of literature, he summons ancient myths, multiplies genres, moving from science fiction to eco-thriller, from poetry to historical narrative, while touching the excessiveness of the first to the last line. Anthony Doerr’s pen is rich, colorful, quick to celebrate the natural elements, the beauty and the complexity of the world. His mastery of storytelling and his words open a multitude of doors to universes where each of us, like the five protagonists of this human and emotional odyssey, will draw answers to his questions, a source of redemption, inspiration, reasons to dream the world and to hope.

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“The City of Clouds and Birds”, by Anthony Doerr: the power of books