Sometimes the things we think are lost are only hidden, waiting to be rediscovered.
Anthony Doerr has written a masterpiece of a tale, connecting five characters, over hundreds of years through their relationship to a single book. Cloud Cuckoo Land is an ancient story written by Antonius Diogenes around the first century C.E. (Only in the novel. While the author is real, the book was made up.) It tells of a shepherd, Aethon, seeking a magical, heavenly place in the sky, the “Cloud Cuckoo Land” of the title. Each of the five characters are introduced to this story, and we see how it impacts their lives. Each has characteristics that set them apart. But all have lost, or lose, at least one parent.
Anthony Doerr – image from Boise State Public Radio
We meet Konstance, 14, on an interstellar, generational ship, maybe the late 21st century, maybe the 22nd. She is laying out on the floor of a large room the scraps of pages that comprise the book. (Sometimes he [Doerr] would lay out all these micro chapters on the floor so he could see them and discover the resonances between characters across space and time. – from the NY Times interview) She was born on The Argos, and the plan is that she will not live long enough to reach the ship’s destination, but will grow to adulthood and raise a family there, passing down humanity’s culture so that someday, homo sapiens can rebuild on a new, unspoiled home world, Beta Oph2. Hopefully that planet will remain better off once people arrive. She is driven by her need to know, a boundless curiosity, and a willingness to think outside the ship.
Anna is an orphan. In 15th century Constantinople we follow her from age 7 to early adolescence. She and her older sister, Maria, work as seamstresses in the house of Nicholas Kalaphates. It is a Dickensian world of exploitation of diverse sorts. Anna is far too bright to be denied the world of words, and, once exposed to it, she pursues that world doggedly. On her travels through the city on errands she comes across a class of boys being taught Greek, The Odyssey, and attends, surreptitiously. The master agrees to teach her privately in return for modest items. Her literacy makes her a suspect to the adults around her, a criminal to others, and possibly a witch to the most ignorant, but leads her to a ruined library and eventually, to Aethon.
The Imperial Library at Constantinople [in better days] – image from Novo Scriptorium
Omeir was born in 1439, like Anna, but with a cleft lip and palate. The superstitious country people in his home town believed him cursed, demonic even, so he is driven out of town, exiled to a remote part of what is now Bulgaria, where he does his best to remain out of sight, to be raised by his grandfather. But Omeir is a survivor. He becomes a marvel at the care of oxen, raising and training two to immense proportions. The team of three are remarkable workers. Downside is that the new sultan demands Omeir, now an adolescent, and his oxen serve in his army. He is planning to lay siege to Constantinople, a city with walls that have withstood such attacks for over eleven hundred years. Omeir will encounter Aethon later.
The oldest surviving map of Constantinople, by Cristoforo Buondelmonti, dated to 1422. The fortifications of Constantinople and of Galata, at the northern shore of the Golden Horn, are prominently featured. – image from Wikipedia
Seymour does not fit in. He lives with his mother, who struggles to get by on low-wage jobs. Probably on the spectrum, he struggles with more than the usual travails of growing up. He cannot, for example, tolerate loud sound. He cannot or will not remain in his seat at school. The world overwhelms him and when the pressure of it builds too high, he screams, which is not conducive to a successful school life. A class library outing brings him into contact with a whole new world, when the librarian, Marian, (surely a nod to The Music Man) hooks him up with nature books. He finds comfort in the natural world, befriending a large, amenable owl, and reveling in walks in the woods adjacent to his home. We follow him from childhood into adolescence and into his development as an eco-warrior. Seymour is the avatar of Doerr’s concerns about environmental degradation, presenting a generational cri du coeur, however misguided in its application, about the destruction of a following generation’s natural heritage.
We see Zeno as a child. He realizes he is gay at an early age. But it is the 1940s in Idaho, and this is simply not allowed. He has to keep that part of himself hidden. We see him again as a POW during the Korean War, when he learns Greek, and as an octogenarian teacher. He lives in a small Idaho community, and is leading five students in a stage performance of Cloud Cuckoo Land, a book he translated from the Greek, well, from what bits remained of it.
As with All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, his characters here are young. (Not necessarily for the entire book, but for a good chunk) He says writing from a child’s perspective allows one to “to see more nakedly some of the things that we’ve elided or erased in our minds because of age.” (From the NYTimes interview). Each comes to the world with their own personal content, but also with a sense of wonder. Anna is amazed by the vast universe of story that can be reached through literacy. Seymour is dazzled by nature and nature books. Konstance is amazed by the things she can see, the places she can visit, the knowledge she can gain in the virtual library on the ship. Zeno also finds a refuge and a world of possibility in his local library. For Omeir, it is the tales his grandfather tells him when they’re out trapping grouse that capture his imagination.
While all the characters have their individual stories, Zeno and Seymour’s stories converge in today’s Lakeport, Idaho; (Doerr and family spend a lot of time in McCall, Idaho, a likely model for Lakeport) Anna and Omeir’s stories converge in the siege of Constantinople in the fifteenth century, and all their stories converge on the connection to that ancient book up through the somewhat near future of Konstance’s experience.
Mural at the Turkish Military Museum of the scene outside the walls of Constantinople in 1453 – image from Europe Between East and West
It is these connections, these convergences, that provide the structure and core mystery of the book. How does this first century story find its way to fifteenth century Constantinople, to the world of today, and to the future in which Konstance lives? How is it preserved, by whom, and why? Asked about the spark for his focus on the preservation of literature, of culture, Doer said:
I’m getting close to 50. And though I still feel and behave like a kid most of the time, my eyesight is fading, I can apparently injure myself while sleeping and my little baby boys are suddenly big hairy-legged job-working car-driving high school kids. I’m realizing that everything—youth, hairlines, memories, civilizations—fades. And the amazing technology that is a printed book seems to be one of the few human inventions that has outlived whole human generations. What a privilege it is to open a book like The Iliad and summon tales that entertained people almost 3,000 years ago.
The folks doing most of the preserving are librarians of one sort or another. Each of the characters has a relationship with a librarian, Zeno and Seymour with the librarians in Lakeport, Idaho, Anna with scribes in Constantinople, Omeir with Anna, and Konstance with the AI controller of her ship.
I hope that my readers will be reminded that librarians serve as stewards of human memory—without librarians, we lose perhaps our most important windows into the human journey. – from the QBD interview
Part of his growing-up environment was spending a lot of time in libraries as his teacher mom often made use of them as a form of day care for Doerr and his brothers. It’s not like he minded. In fact, he even dedicated the book to librarians.
They were a place where I felt completely safe. And just the miracle of them, there’s something that – talk about peeling the scales off your eyes. Like, here’s the work of all these masters available to you for free. And you can take them home. – from the NPR interview
As with All the Light…, Doerr found inspirations for the elements of the book in diverse places. It was while researching the walls at Saint Malo for his prior book that he came across repeated references to the millennium-long impenetrability of the walls of Constantinople, and dug into that a lot deeper. He is also interested in how technology induces change. In All the Light… it was radio. Here it is gunpowder and advanced armaments in the 15th century, allowing a new level of violence in the assault on supposedly impervious walls. In the contemporary world it is the internet allowing in both a world of information and a cannonade of lies and manipulation. He sees the future as being driven by artificial intelligence.
One of the things that most stuck with me was the portrayal of reading, particularly the reading of material to others, as not only an act of kindness, of affection, but also be a source of healing, and certainly comfort. There are several times when characters read to other characters who are ill, to positive effect. We are a species that relies on stories to make sense of our world, and to inspire, to spark imagination. The story of Aethon inspires all the main characters to dream of more, to dream of better, to dream beyond realistic possibility.
Doerr enjoys tossing in a bit of classical reference spice. The ship Argos, of course, recalls Jason and his crew. Zeno is saved by a dog named Athena as Hercules was rescued by the goddess herself. There are plenty more of these.
I would keep an eye out for owl imagery, and roses come in for some repeated attention as well. Walls get special attention. The big one in Constantinople is the most obvious, but Konstance has physical walls of her own she needs to get through. Seymour tries breaching a physical wall, as Zeno tries to defend one. The notion of paradise permeates. The title alone refers to an unrealizable fantasy of heaven. It is the heaven that Aethon pursues. For Zeno it is a place where he can be accepted, loved, while being his true self. Seymour is lured by the promise of a sylvan environmentalist camp where he can embrace nature with others of like mind. A development in his beloved woods is called Eden’s Gate (close enough to make one think of Heaven’s Gate). He and his mother live on Arcady Lane. For Anna it is a dream of a better life outside the city.
How Doerr weaves all this together is a dazzling work of genius. He will leave you breathless, even as he shows you the construction of his multiple threads, bit by bit by bit.
“That’s the real joy,” Doerr said, “the visceral pleasure that comes from taking these stories, these lives, and intersecting them, braiding them.” – from the NY Times interview
Mirroring is employed extensively as the experiences of all five characters (and Aethon) repeat in one form or another for them all.
The book lists at 640 hardcover pages. Do not take this at face value. In terms of actual words, Cuckoo Land is about the same length as All the Light. There are many pages holding only titles or section headings. There is a lot of white space. That does not make this a fast read. It would still be around 500 pages if one stripped it down to word-count alone. But it is less daunting than the presenting length of 640 pages. Also, Doerr writes in small chunks. You can always use a spare minute or two to drop in on this book and still get through a chapter or five. There is a reason for this.
He had hit upon this approach for the most practical of reasons. As a parent, he couldn’t hope to get more than an hour or two of solid work done before having to attend to shuttling the boys to swim practice or some other activity. “I might have stumbled accidentally into that,” he said. – from the NY Times interview
While there are dark events that take place in this novel, the overall feel is one of optimism, of possibility, of persistence, and of the availability of beauty and hope to all, if only we can keep alive our connections to each other through time and place, keep alive hopes for a better place, for a better, meaningful life, and continue to dream impossible dreams. If you read nothing else this year, do yourself a favor and read Cloud Cuckoo Land, and be transported (no wings required) to a literary paradise by this book, which I hope will be read as long as there are people able to read. It is a heavenly book, and an immediate classic.
“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 too. 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.”
Review posted – October 22, 2021
Publication date – September 28, 2021
I received an ARE of Cloud Cuckoo Land from Simon & Schuster, but I first learned of it from Cai at GR, who passed on my request to someone at S&S, who sent me an ARE and passed on my request to the person responsible for this e-galley, who ok’d that too. Thanks to all, and thanks to NetGalley for providing an e-ARE.
—–The Guardian – Anthony Doerr: ‘Rather than write what I know, I write what I want to know’ by Anthony Cummins
—–CBS – Sunday Morning – Novelist Anthony Doerr on “Cloud Cuckoo Land” – with Lee Cowan – video – 7:49
—–NPR – Anthony Doerr On The Spark That Inspired ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’ – audio – 8:26 – with Scott Simon – text of the interview is on the page as well
—–Seattle Times – Pulitzer winner Anthony Doerr discusses his new novel, the timeless power of books and more by Moira Macdonald
—–New York Times – For His Next Act, Anthony Doerr Wrote a Book About Everything by Gal Beckerman
—–Parade – Anthony Doerr Revels in the Uplifting Messages of Stories in His New Epic Cloud Cuckoo Land by Dillon Dodson
—–QBD Book Club: Cloud Cuckoo Land with Anthony Doerr with Victoria A. Carthew – video – 28:06
My review of Doerr’s prior novel
—–All the Light We Cannot See
—–Les Miserables I Dreamed a Dream – Anne Hathaway
—–Man of La Mancha – The Impossible Dream – Richard Kiley at the Tony Awards
—–The Music Man – Madam Librarian
—–Edison Lighthouse – Love Grows Where my Rosemary Goes – Playing when Zeno is in London
Items of Interest from the author
—–audio excerpt – 0:58
Items of Interest
—–Interesting Literature – on the etymology of the phrase Cloud Cuckoo Land
Since the late nineteenth century, the phrase has been used more generally to refer to ‘a fanciful or ideal realm or domain’. Indeed, most of the time people use ‘cloud cuckoo land’ they do so without referencing the phrase back to Aristophanes; indeed, many people who use the phrase may well be unaware of the term’s origins in the work of ancient Greece’s greatest comic playwright.
—–Wiki on The Fall of Constantinople
—–Wiki on The Imperial Library of Constantinople
—–Generation Starship – thanks to Derus for the ref