Anthony Doerr is one of the most scientifically minded fiction writers working today. He’s a literary conservationist. In his vision, science is a matter of preservation and protection. Nature and technology, under science’s umbrella, are to be engaged with responsibly and in the interest of betterment, for they can be easily exploited by opposing forces. Science, in Doerr’s fiction, is a human ideal, matched only by art—which too can be safeguarded or destroyed via scientific means. His latest novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, presents Doerr’s most directly articulated paean to science, art, and the human spirit, here represented by the greatest of humanity’s achievements—the book—and some of the best in human conservation—librarians. Cloud Cuckoo Land is also Doerr’s most ambitious work to date, which demonstrates just how much he cares about his subject.
Cloud Cuckoo Land tells the stories of two fifteenth-century children, a present-day translator, and a future in which humanity is forced to explore space to survive as a species, but the glue of the text is a fictional Greek fantasy from which Doerr’s epic, epoch-hopping tale takes its name. Written in the first century C.E. by a man named Antonius Diogenes and considered lost for centuries, “Cloud Cuckoo Land” serves as talisman for literature, moving through the generations like DNA. Throughout Doerr’s novel, we’re given snippets from Diogenes’ picaresque narrative, which tells the story of a shepherd who, while drunk one night, sees a production of Aristophanes’ comedy The Birds, which features an invented city facetiously referred to as “Cloud Cuckoo Land.” The shepherd believes this magical place to exist in the sky and that he must be turned into a bird to fly to it. Diogenes’ book relates the shepherd’s adventurous attempts to travel to the city.
During the fall of Constantinople during the fifteenth century, a young orphan named Anna lives as a slave at an embroidery house with her older sister. “Anna has never tasted sweet cream,” we’re told, “never eaten an orange, and never set foot outside the city walls.” After overhearing a tutor reading The Odyssey aloud to a pupil, Anna bribes the tutor with wine to teach her to read, a skill that comes in handy when she and a friend begin looting an abandoned building and Anna discovers numerous volumes inside, one of which is “Cloud Cuckoo Land.”
Constantinople falls because for fifty-three days the Ottoman army relentlessly attacked the heretofore impenetrable walls surrounding the Byzantine capital. Omeir, a boy about Anna’s age, works with his oxen as part of the sieging horde. Born with a cleft palate, Omeir is run out of his village along with his family because the people believe he “harbors a demon inside, and the flaw in his face is proof.” He is forced to join the war because of the strength of his pet oxen, Tree and Moonlight. As the battle rages, Omeir becomes more and more disenchanted with their mission.
In Idaho in 2020, a Korean War vet, retired plow driver, and amateur Greek translator named Zeno mounts a stage production of “Cloud Cuckoo Land” with a group of elementary school kids. They are going to perform the play at the local library, which is also where they rehearse. During one such rehearsal, as the kids debate the order of the story (scholars aren’t certain of the order of the surviving folios), a seventeen-year-old named Seymour enters the library with a gun and a bookbag full of explosives. Seymour lives with his mother, who works two jobs to stay afloat. He suffers, according to his school counselor, from a “sensory processing disorder or attention deficit disorder or hyperactivity disorder or some combination thereof.” He wears noise-cancelling headphones much of the time, as the racket of the world unnerves him. His one source of solace is a stretch of land encased by Douglas firs and occupied by a large owl he names Trustyfriend. When developers raze Seymour’s special place, he becomes an environmental activist and turns more and more radical under the influence of an online terrorist organization. Seymour seeks revenge on the real estate company responsible for the destruction of Trustyfriend’s home. The offices of the realtor are located next door to the library.
Finally, in the near future, a spacecraft carries a group of people toward a new planet. Earth has become inhospitable, and this team represents humanity’s last chance for survival. Konstance, a fourteen-year-old, was born on the ship. She’s never been to Earth, and, because of how long the journey will take, she won’t set foot on the new planet either. When we meet her, she’s locked in a vault, her only company the ship’s voice system, Sybil. Alone and isolated (for reasons we won’t learn until the end), she occupies herself by copying down a story her father told her, the story of “Cloud Cuckoo Land.”
Doerr’s six hundred–plus page novel resists simplification. In order to explicate some of the ways the narrative mechanics undergird the themes, it’s necessary to explain, in some detail, the intersecting stories. Also, part of the fun of Cloud Cuckoo Land is discovering the connections between these characters across the centuries, just as much as it’s delightful figuring out how Doerr balances the disparate stories structurally. As in his earlier novel, All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr composes short chapters that bounce around in time, but it’s a much more dizzying effect here since the settings and time-periods vary so widely. Each narrative part of Cloud Cuckoo Land wouldn’t be especially compelling if it were to stand on its own, but as components of a larger tapestry, they succeed. Also, the diverse settings serve the themes: that mere fact that a character in the fifteenth century and another in outer space in the future both grapple with books—the same book, no less—shows just how important Doerr believes literature is to human life.
The book—the physical form—is the result of technology, as are the cannons used by the Ottoman army to overtake Constantinople, and the spaceship used to carry Konstance to her new planet (because her former one was destroyed by unmitigated technological development). The science that destroys us (weapons) and the science employed to deal with climate change (space exploration) are juxtaposed here with one of the simplest and most valuable kinds of science: the book. The tradition handed down via the written word, Doerr suggests, yields far more meaningful connections, even across centuries, than many of the technologies that have emerged since the invention of the printing press.
Books would be inert objects without stewards who protect them and share them with the world. Zeno falls in love with stories as a child when the local librarians read him Greek mythology. One of the points, though, of Cloud Cuckoo Land is that all of us can and do act as librarians, by keeping the stories we’re told in our hearts and on our shelves. That is how literature—and cultures—survive.
Ultimately, Cloud Cuckoo Land is about survival—the survival of “Cloud Cuckoo Land” via the hands of inadvertent stewards, the survival of people assisted by literacy, and the survival of our planet and our species. “Cloud Cuckoo Land” begins life as a response to a line from Aristophanes’ play and moves through each of the characters, changing them, spurring them on, giving them a reason to go on. As a POW in Korea, Zeno meets and falls in love with a British soldier and scholar who teaches him Greek; his translation of “Cloud Cuckoo Land” is just as much an ode to his unrequited love as it is an intellectual pursuit. Konstance, in her vault on the spaceship, discovers “Cloud Cuckoo Land” and other mysteries encrypted into the computer’s virtual-reality map of Earth. Anna takes on the task of protecting the manuscript during a harrowing war. The book gives them a reason to press on when things seem hopeless.
Books represent the best of humanity, not only because of the complex content contained within them, but also because of the many peripheral developments required to make books possible: ideas, language, stories, technology, community, and literacy. The characters in Cloud Cuckoo Land are taught to read, a skill that both exposes them to newfound meaning and plays a major role in connecting them to important figures in their lives. Cloud Cuckoo Land, in its form, shows how big and complex storytelling can be, and in its content, functions as a gorgeous ode to the power of books. Literature improves us as individuals, but it’s even more beneficial to us as a society. It binds us together like the spine of a book.
Cloud Cuckoo Land. By Anthony Doerr. New York: Scribner, 2021. 626 pp. $30.