11 December 2021
Cloud Cuckoo Land – Anthony Doerr
Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you.
“Repository,” he finally says, “you know this word? A resting place. A text – a book – is a resting place for the memories of people who have lived before. A way for the memory to stay fixed after the soul has traveled on.” His eyes open very widely then, as though he peers into a great darkness. “But books, like people, die. They die in fires or floods or in the mouths of worms or at the whims of tyrants. If they are not safeguarded, they go out of the world. And when a book goes out of the world, the memory dies a second death.”
“Do you know the story of Noah and his sons, child? How they filled their ship with everything to start the world anew? For a thousand years your city, this crumbling capital” – he waves a hand toward a window – “was like that ark. Only instead of two of every living creature, do you know what the good Lord stacked inside this ship?”
Beyond the shuttered window the first cocks crow. She can feel Himerius twitching beside the fire, all his attention on the silver.
“Books.” The scribe smiles. “And in our tale of Noah and the ship of books, can you guess what is the flood?”
She shakes her head.
“Time. Day after day, year after year, time wipes the old books from the world. The manuscript you brought us before? That was written by Aelian, a learned man who lived at the time of the Caesars. For it to reach us in this room, in this hour, the lines within it had to survive a dozen centuries. A scribe had to copy it, and a second scribe, decades later, had to recopy that copy, transform it from a scroll to a codex, and long after the second scribe’s bones were in the earth, a third came along and recopied it again, and all this time the book was being hunted. One bad-tempered abbot, one clumsy friar, one invading barbarian, an overturned candle, a hungry worm – and all those centuries are undone.”
The flames of the tapers flicker; his eyes seem to gather all the light in the room.
“The things that look fixed in the world, child – mountains, wealth, empires – their permanence is only an illusion. We believe they will last, but that is only because of the brevity of our own lives. From the perspective of God, cities like this come and go like anthills. The young sultan is assembling an army, and he has new war engines that can bring down walls as though they were air.”
Her gut lurches. Himerius inches toward the coins on the table.
“The ark has hit the rocks, child. And the tide is washing in.”
“Each of these books, child, is a door, a gateway to another place and time. You have your whole life in front of you, and for all of it, you’ll have this. It will be enough, don’t you think?”
It is the fifth week of the siege, or maybe the sixth, each day bleeding into the last.
A story is a way of stretching time.
Sometimes the things we think are lost are only hidden, waiting to be rediscovered.
In a life you accumulate so many memories, your brain constantly winnowing through them, weighing consequence, burying pain, but somehow by the time you’re this age you still end up dragging a monumental sack of memories behind you, a burden as heavy as a continent, and eventually it becomes time to take them out of the world.