Published by 4th Estate | September 2021 | Mythological saga
It's tricky to categorise Anthony Doerr's wildly imaginative novel Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Doerr himself – I suspect with tongue firmly in cheek – has described it as "a literary-sci-fi-mystery-young-adult-historical-morality novel".
Whatever it’s labelled, I won’t be surprised if it earns him extra literary awards to add to his expanding shelf of accolades, including the 2015 Pulitzer for All The Light We Cannot See.
It is a kaleidoscopic novel of immense ambition, delivered in superb prose.
First, about the title. The term ‘cloud cuckoo land’ – describing an absurd or over-optimistic fantasy – has been used for more than 2,400 years since being coined by Ancient Greek comic playwright Aristophanes. In his 414BC play The Birds, it was the name given to a fantastical utopian city built in the sky, halfway between the realm of humans and the gods.
While the tales that unfold in Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land take the reader in a brilliantly different direction than Aristophanes, it brims with nods to the Ancient Greek masters.
Like them, Doerr embraces playfulness, drama and intrigue while quietly probing profound themes.
Uppermost is Doerr’s exploration of humanity’s capacity for self-deception and harm, although these traits can be matched by the equally resilient human qualities of courage and compassion. It’s also an open plea to all humans for greater stewardship – of our shared planet and humanity; and of stories, which, as Doerr so ably demonstrates, have the power to guide and bind us throughout millennia.
Doerr achieves this by sliding back and forth between three captivating stories, set in vastly different places and times.
One is the present-day story of teenage idealist Seymour and octogenarian Zeno in an terror attack on a public library in the fictional town of Lakeport in Idaho.
The second rolls back to the mid-fifteenth century, where Anna and Omeir are on opposite sides of the city walls during the 1453 siege of Constantinople by the Ottomans.
The third is set in the distant future, featuring Konstance, who’s on an interstellar ship bound for an exoplanet 4.2399 light-years from Earth.
And binding these three narratives together is a fourth – a (fictionalised) tale written by the (genuine) Ancient Greek author Antonius Diogenes around the end of the first century BC. Its 24 short sections, slipped in between chapters, tells the tale of a shepherd’s comical journey to a utopian city in the sky.
This story, which defies the ravages of time, finds its way into the lives of all the characters – variously providing them with solace, answers and hope – as they are experiencing perilous times and yearning for a better reality.
For example, Seymour, devastated when a forest he loves is razed to make room for a housing development, becomes radicalized into committing a crime in hope of protecting the environment. This brings him in contact with Zeno, who some 70 years earlier had been taken prisoner during the Korean war, and had since lived life aching to express his love for a fellow POW.
Then there’s Anna, an orphan living and working in an embroidery house in 15th century Constantinople, who chafes against her over-structured life, and longs to read. Omeir, an oxherd conscripted into the Ottoman army to help drag the world’s largest-ever cannon to fire at Anna’s city, craves a simple life back in the mountains.
And most fantastically imagined of all, Konstance is on a tireless quest for answers after being trapped alone in a vault in her spaceship with access to a virtual library, when an even larger narrative unfolds.
Beyond the exquisite complexity of plot, Doerr’s prose is superb – each word chosen with such care, each description so economical yet evocative, each turn of phrase so strikingly apposite. Just a couple of examples that spring to mind: when Seymour sees crimson blood, “it frightens [him] that the body contains such an extravagant colour”; and as Zeno steals glances at the target of his desire, he thinks, “there is the same pleasure in gazing at this man as in gazing at a fire”.
His lexical mastery is also a joy, and I’m grateful to add to my own vocabulary. For example, I’ll now use “wale” to name the horizontal wood fitted to strengthen a boat; “contrail” for the vapour streak that follows an aircraft; and “lacunae” to name the absent part of a book.
Besides the thread of Diogenes’ tale through the three immersive worlds of the protagonists, they share other characteristics.
On one hand, the heavy toll of conflict, greed and human overreach are common themes in each of the three narratives, suggesting these are traits that cannot be eradicated by time. On the other, libraries play a significant role in each, again suggesting the endurance of stories due to their importance to human life. (Indeed, Doerr has dedicated the novel to “the librarians, then, now and in the years to come.”)
These common strands hint at the fallibility of humans, suggesting we will always create problems for the world in which we live. But if we keep remembering our deep interconnectedness – with our past ancestors, neighbours today, and with other creatures and nature – we are likely to make more courageous, kinder decisions to better care for our world for those yet to be born.
Because, as Doerr suggests, Earth is our only real Cloud Cuckoo Land.