Skip to main content

Cloud Cuckoo Land


Cloud Cuckoo Land

In his recent New York Times review of Sally Rooney’s BEAUTIFUL WORLD, WHERE ARE YOU, Brandon Taylor referred in passing to the “kind of plotless un-novel we’re growing accustomed to.” Anthony Doerr’s CLOUD CUCKOO LAND is another book that’s high on many reading lists this fall, but it’s the antithesis of contemporary novels about relationships or “the way we live now” to which Taylor alluded. Instead, Doerr’s novel boasts an engrossing plot that spans more than two millennia. But it’s more than merely a fast-paced story that plays out across a vibrant canvas of history, myth, fable and science fiction. It’s a heartfelt apologia on behalf of books and those who have preserved them, often at great personal risk, throughout history.

To describe the plot as intricate wouldn’t do justice to Doerr’s ingeniously constructed, time-shifting narrative. At the heart of the novel is the titular fictional prose work, purportedly written in the first century of the Common Era by the Greek writer Antonius Diogenes. It tells the story of the shepherd Aethon and his journey to seek a “golden city in the clouds.” Along the way he’s transformed successively into a donkey, fish and crow before reaching the mythical land.

"Whether in the form of ink on a printed page, pixels on a screen, or in some medium we have yet to imagine, the task of preserving books is among the most noble in humanity’s history. Anthony Doerr has paid that task a worthy homage."

That manuscript, fragments of which open each of the novel’s chapters, is the hub that connects the lives of five people --- Omeir and Anna, two teenagers on opposite sides of the walls of Constantinople as the city is about to fall to the Ottoman Empire in 1453; Zeno Ninis, an octogenarian who resides in a small town in Idaho, who has translated the story and transformed it into a play for a group of elementary school students; Seymour Stuhlman, a troubled young man whose zeal for protecting the environment has warped into terrorism; and Konstance, another teenager aboard a spaceship in the 22nd century bearing a crew of some 80 people on a Noah’s ark-like mission to a distant planet.

Beginning with Anna’s theft of Diogenes’ codex from a Constantinople priory as the Ottoman forces, into whose army Omeir and his two oxen have been conscripted, prepare for their assault, the document winds its way through history. Eventually, it appears in a virtual library in the spaceship Argos in the year 2146, where Konstance encounters it. That journey is propelled by some novelistic coincidences that Doerr renders with complete plausibility. Through this sometimes tortuous passage, he imparts a lesson that’s shared with Anna by the teacher who introduces her to reading.

“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.”

One might be forgiven some skepticism about Doerr’s ability to knit together these disparate stories to make that point, but readers of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE won’t doubt his ability to pull off the feat. However, given the diversity of time, place and mood in CLOUD CUCKOO LAND, he’s upped the ante considerably. As he did in his earlier novel, Doerr moves seamlessly among his characters’ stories, relying on compact, action-oriented chapters to pull the reader relentlessly forward.

Doerr writes with equal assurance about everything from 15th-century siege warfare, to the Korean War, to life aboard a spaceship whose current occupants won’t live to see the end of its mission. His descriptions of his characters’ inner lives and sometime heroic exploits are both vivid and economical, evoking one of Anna’s impressions as she makes her way through Diogenes’ mold-damaged work: “Turn a page, walk the lines of sentences; the singer steps out, and conjures a world of color and noise in the space inside your head.”

What’s most compelling about CLOUD CUCKOO LAND is Doerr’s ability to convey each of his characters’ passions in unique but deeply meaningful ways, posing provocative questions about how the actions of discrete individuals can resonate through history.

Anna’s theft is motivated by the need to raise money for medical treatment she hopes will save her dying sister. Zeno engages in the painstaking work of translation mostly to keep alive the memory of the British fellow prisoner of war who taught him the rudiments of Greek in their Korean War captivity. Even Seymour’s disastrous plan to call attention to the planet’s “warming, melting, and dying faster than scientists predicted” by planting a bomb in the town library is prompted by something beyond pure nihilism. Their humble status doesn’t begin to hint at the consequence, for good and ill, of their deeds.

On the day she celebrates her 10th birthday and is deemed old enough to learn her destiny, a librarian aboard the Argos reminds Konstance that “whether with medicine or technology, by gathering power, by embarking on journeys, or by telling stories we humans have tried to defeat death. None of us ever has.” And yet, she reminds the young girl that “there is nobility in being part of an enterprise that will outlast you.” CLOUD CUCKOO LAND is the beautiful story of such an enterprise. Whether in the form of ink on a printed page, pixels on a screen, or in some medium we have yet to imagine, the task of preserving books is among the most noble in humanity’s history. Anthony Doerr has paid that task a worthy homage.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on September 30, 2021

Cloud Cuckoo Land
by Anthony Doerr

  • Publication Date: September 27, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1982168447
  • ISBN-13: 9781982168445