Anthony Doerr thinks big.
His latest novel, the follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See, not only clocks in at more than 600 pages, but follows five major protagonists across three meticulously detailed timelines. Added to that, it focuses attention on a lost, resurrected manuscript that exemplifies the power of literature and of librarians by envisioning a magical place between Earth and Heaven.
Cloud Cuckoo Land (628 pages; Scribner) is set in 15th-century Constantinople, contemporary Idaho, and aboard a generational starship in the not-too-distant future. The cast of characters includes a teenage ox driver, a young seamstress, a student infuriated by climate catastrophe, a closeted Korean War veteran, and the sole conscious occupant of an interstellar vehicle.
In 1413, 13-year-old Anna spends her days inside the heretofore impregnable walls of Constantinople, making a meager living with her sister, embroidering the robes of priests. Constantinople is a bookish city, noted for its libraries. More than anything, Anna wants to learn to read, and when she finds a suitable book she begins the laborious process with the help of Licinius, a tutor she overhears reciting from Homer’s The Odyssey.
When her sister Maria falls critically ill, Anna is able to comfort her by reading to her from Cloud Cuckoo Land by Antonius Diogenes. It is the fantastical adventures of the shepherd Aethon, who wants to become a bird and fly away.
When Licinius is on his deathbed, he tells Anna, “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.”
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That speech neatly sums up one of the novel’s major and pleasurable themes: the safeguarding of forgotten works of art. The comment is also suggestive of another theme, that of humanity’s relationship to the natural world and the importance of its stewardship.
Sometimes the connections among characters aren’t visible immediately. Others are set clearly within concurrent time frames. For example, on the other side of the wall around Constantinople lives a farmboy, Omeir, who has a cleft lip that scares his superstitious neighbors, who fear the boy has been cursed. Omeir stays away from people, preferring the company of animals. The owner of two oxen, he is conscripted into the army laying siege to the city, pulling a gigantic cannon to within firing range of the walls. He and Anna are destined to meet under unusual circumstances.
Cloud Cuckoo Land plays out across the centuries, tripping from one kind of siege to another, usually focusing on children who have lost one or more parent, but always coming back to the supposedly lost story by Diogenes.
The largest temporal leap takes the narrative from 1413 to 1951. During the Korean War, the orphaned Zeno Ninis finds himself in a prisoner of war camp. There he learns to read Greek and falls in love with a fellow captive, only to lose track of him for 20 lonely years.
In Idaho in 2020, a group of teens rehearses a stage adaptation of Aethon’s story at a local library, unaware a bomb has been set among the shelves. Seymour, a sensitive and troubled would-be eco-terrorist, wants to stop development in a beloved part of the forest that abuts the library. He falls under the sway of someone called “Bishop,” who justifies the use of deadly violence: “in our attempts to throw some wrenches into the market economy, we hope no one will die. But if there are a few deaths, isn’t it still worth it? To stop fifteen Holocausts?”
Finally, sometime in the future, Konstance wakes up early and alone aboard the Argos, making its way to a habitable planet after fleeing the effects of climate change back on Earth. She has never set foot on her home planet, but she still cherishes the memories of the stories told to her by her father while he worked in the ship’s garden, stories she transcribes onto empty food packaging. She finds herself locked into a vault where Sybil, the all-seeing Artificial Intelligence, refuses to do anything that might endanger the life aboard Argos, including opening the door for Konstance.
As much as the characters in Cloud Cuckoo Land love literature, so are they intimately connected to nature. Omeir treats his oxen as if they were children and suffers when they are hurt. The death of a beloved owl is a catalyst for Seymour’s siege. Among the last living things Konstance sees aboard the Argos before she is sequestered is a massive Bosnian pine “probably twenty-five meters high, twisting up toward the sky, like the great-great-grandfather of her sapling in Farm 4.”
Doerr emphasizes the importance of stewardship throughout, pointing out how language, literature, and life all work together for the betterment of each. Although some characters are on a mission to a place light years away, none of them is alone. Konstance’s father is even willing to take a microscopic perspective: “We think of viruses as evil, but in reality few are. Life usually seeks to cooperate, not fight.”
The great challenge with a book such as Cloud Cuckoo Land is maintaining enough momentum to get from one favored protagonist to the next. Doerr keeps his chapters short and punchy, the narrative powered by a long series of cliffhangers. For some readers, clever Konstance and dogged Anna may be the most compelling characters, but even Seymour possesses depths that prevent him from becoming a one-note presence.
As the final chapters approach, Doerr nails down all the plot threads. Some characters end up leading extraordinary lives, others live in obscurity. No matter, because everything is connected. All along, the book has been about homecoming, about making your way back to where you started from. Even Seymour achieves some enlightenment, sharing some secrets that have been held to the very end.
Having once considered humanity a parasite, “he realizes that the truth is infinitely more complicated, that we are all beautiful even as we are all part of the problem, and that to be a part of the problem is to be human.”
Cloud Cuckoo Land overflows with love for literature and storytelling and nature. It’s a big puzzle that satisfies a reader’s quest for answers and meaning across time and space, up to and including the final scene.
Cloud Cuckoo Land is a beautiful book, in its language, in its storytelling, in its urgency to steward literature and the natural world. It’s a big puzzle that satisfies a reader’s quest for answers and meaning across time and space, up to and including the final scene.