Stories Resonating Through Us

Anthony Doerr took the literary world by storm in 2014. His sophomore novel, All the Light We Cannot See, was a literary sensation, earning Doerr accolade after accolade. It was warmly received by both the general reading public and the literary pundits. The story of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, an orphaned German boy during the Second World War, All the Light We Cannot See reached the pinnacle of success after it bagged one of the most prestigious literary prizes, winning the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It has also won several other literary awards and was on The New York Times Bestseller list for hardcover fiction for 130 consecutive weeks. It was also named by The New York Times as one of its notable books for 2014. One thing was clear, All the Light We Cannot See was a phenomenal bestseller that has cemented Doerr’s path towards the upper echelons of literature.

It cannot also be denied that the world was waiting for more of Doerr’s prose. Rather than immediately following up the book’s success with more full-length prose, it would take seven years for the gods of literature to answer everyone’s clamor. Doerr finally made his long-awaited literary comeback, with Cloud Cuckoo Land hitting the stands in September 2021. At the heart of the novel are five main characters whose individual stories were set in three distinct time frames spanning over eight centuries. The first of these five characters was fourteen-year-old Konstance. She was spending her 307th day inside Vault One of the Argos, an intergalactic spaceship. The year: Mission Year 65, the 22nd century. While browsing through the contents of the vault, Konstance came across scraps written on in different characters, including the Greek alphabet. The first scrap read: The lost Greek prose tale Cloud Cuckoo Land, by the writer Antonius Diogenes, relating a shepherd’s journey to a utopian city in the sky, was probably written around the end of the first century C.E.

Thus commenced Doerr’s third novel. Inscribed in one of the scraps that Konstance found was a date, February 20, 2020. From the future, Doerr transported the readers to the contemporary as they find themselves in Lakeport Public Library in Lakeport, Idaho. Eighty-six-year-old Zeno Ninis has worked on the translation of Cloud Cuckoo Land, a Greek Codex found in the vaults of the Vatican. A former veteran of the Korean War, Zeno was directing a play based on his translation of Cloud Cuckoo Land. The characters are going to be portrayed by fifth-graders. Meanwhile, the contemporary diverged as another character was introduced. Seymour was an aloof teenager who refuses to remain seated at school. There was something about him that sets him apart from the crowd. He was a wallflower but something was welling up within him. During a library outing, he discovered a new world after Marian, the librarian, introduced him to nature books. His refuge was the natural world, especially in the company of owls. As he grows older, Seymour has found a new calling as an eco-warrior.

“Repository, 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. 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.”

~ Anthony Doerr, Cloud Cuckoo Land

Within the formidable walls of 15th century Constantinople lived thirteen-year-old Anna and her older sister, Maria. Anna was a young seamstress under the apprenticeship of Widow Theodora in “the once-great embroidery house of Nicholas Kalaphates”. Anna was hoping to earn money to heal her sickly sister. Being a seamstress, however, was not getting her anywhere. Salvation came in the form of ancient manuscripts she found in an abandoned priory at the edge of the city. These manuscripts were then sold lucratively to Italian book collectors working for a nobleman who has envisioned building a grand library that will contain every manuscript ever written. There was, however, one manuscript that Anna has decided to keep for herself: Cloud Cuckoo Land.

Beyond the walls of Constantinople, trouble was brewing. The Ottoman army has converged and was raring to topple the ancient city’s strong fortifications which have withstood at least 23 sieges in over a millennium. The Ottomans, spearheaded by their new sultan, have finally found the solution to the riddle that has been plaguing them for decades. From the Hungarians, they were able to obtain a new set of mighty cannons that were strong enough to breach through Constantinople’s fabled walls. Amongst the sea of armored men was sixteen-year-old Omeir, an oxherd. He was born with a defect – a cleft palate – that would dictate his destiny. Because of his facial deformity, Omeir was ostracized by his family and by society as a whole. Omeir would bear witness to the siege and eventual fall of Constantinople.

The Transcendence of Literature

The common thread that tied these five fragmented plotlines together was the ancient Greek codex, the titular Cloud Cuckoo Land. Each chapter of the novel opened with fragments of Zeno’s translation of the codex. The ancient but fictional – its author, Antonius Diogenes, however, was factual – text also provided the novel a sixth distinct storyline. At the heart of this sixth storyline was Aethon, a shepherd. He dreams of a magical and heavenly place in the sky: “Into my mind leapt a vision of a place of golden towers stacked on clouds, ringed by falcons, redshanks, quails, moorhens, and cuckoos, where rivers of broth gushed from spigots, and tortoises circulated with honeycakes balanced on their backs, and wine ran in channels down both sides of the street.” It was the vision of a place that Aethon hoped would accept and love him for who he is. This place he envisioned would be Cloud Cuckoo Land of the title. Thus commenced a journey that saw him being turned into a donkey, a fish, and a crow.

The ancient codex, however, does not reduce itself into a mere glue that held the fragments of the story together. It kept popping out of the story, mysteriously finding itself in the possession of the characters. It was a reference to the survival of the codex. It was also an homage to the longevity of ancient texts. Their safekeeping and preservation are also priorities. Stories from the past must be preserved. After all, literature transcends time; it is a thread that binds us together, past, present, and future. In an interview with The Guardian, Doerr discussed how he stumbled upon the idea about the survival of ancient texts. It was during a 2004 fellowship at the American Academy in Rome that Doerr was taught by classical scholars about the survival of ancient texts. This, and his fear of erasure, made Doerr’s mind go churning, eventually resulting in a desire to tell “a story about the beauty of how culture endures”.1

“He should have risked more. It has taken him his whole life to accept himself, and he is surprised to understand that now that he can, he does not long for one more year, one more month: eighty-six years has been enough. In a life you accumulate so many memories, your brain constantly winnowing through them, weighing consequence, burying pain, but somehow by the time you’re this age you still end up dragging a monumental sack of memories behind you, a burden as heavy as a continent, and eventually it becomes time to take them out of the world.”

~ Anthony Doerr, Cloud Cuckoo Land

Cloud Cuckoo Land was the result of this desire. In the process of exploring this subject, Doerr also examined the role of literature and reading in our lives. The book depicted our relationship with literature. For Anna, she believed that reading the adventures of Aethon to her sickly sister was helping in her healing. Zeno, on the other hand, saw understanding and deciphering ancient Greek texts as a way of expressing himself and establishing a connection with the person he loved the most. As one of his friends has said: “Of all the mad things we humans do, there might be nothing more humbling, or more noble, than trying to translate the dead languages.” Locked up in her vault, Konstance found reading the fragments of Cloud Cuckoo Land as a way of whiling away her time while at the same time connecting with her past. In different ways, the ancient manuscript helped weave together the lives of the characters, providing the story its overall direction.

An Ambitious Undertaking

Linking the fragments of the novel through an ancient text was commendable on Doerr’s part. However, the connections were sometimes ambiguous, even tenuous. But beyond the tenuous connections, Cloud Cuckoo Land was a lush and multilayered novel that grappled with a plethora of subjects and themes, explored in varying depths. Through the stories and experiences of the five, rather, six characters, the readers were regaled with different subjects. Its scope undeniably was breathtaking. outdid It outdid its predecessor, taking it up a notch in terms of grandeur and ambition.

Historical contexts elevated the novel. Like its predecessor, the novel explored war and its repercussions on the lives of young adults and children. It vividly depicted the events that led to the downfall of Byzantine Constantinople at the hands of the Ottomans led by its youthful Sultan Mehmed II. The formidable walls, which once guarded different cultural assets and treasures, were finally leveled and children, like Anna and Omeir, not yet into their adulthood, bear witness to this dark phase. In the contemporary, different wars and conflicts started brewing up. Zeno, in his late teens, enlisted for the Korean War, but he would find himself figuring in two more conflicts: one was emotional and one involved himself. Identity and sexuality were both explored.

The characters were also linked by leitmotifs of love and survival. These subjects further complemented the novel’s already rich tapestry. Love was a powerful force in overcoming challenges and was primarily portrayed through the story of Omeir and Anna. The convergence of their storylines was reminiscent of the story of Werner and Marie Laure, the protagonists of All the Light We Cannot See. It was love also that saw Zeno through, helping him overcome the harshness and brutalities of the Korean War. But love, for Doerr, was not limited to romantic attachments as it comes in different forms. The love for literature and reading was the prevalent one but the love for the environment was also a seminal subject explored in the novel.

“In a life you accumulate so many memories, your brain constantly winnowing through them, weighing consequence, burying pain, but somehow by the time you’re this age you still end up dragging a monumental sack of memories behind you, a burden as heavy as a continent, and eventually it becomes time to take them out of the world.”

~ Anthony Doerr, Cloud Cuckoo Land

Overall, what stood out was the evocative portrait of five misfits who, in their own ways, were trying to navigate the curves of life. Like its predecessor, Cloud Cuckoo Land was peopled by children, or at least they were children for the majority of the story. They were young but the fire of ambition burned brightly within them. Their aspirations drove them, propelled them forward. It was what made them swim the waters to escape a burning city. It was what made them survive the traumas of war, death, and loss. It was what made them keep going on. Each character had a different motivation, some darker than the others. But it was these motivations that gave the novel its distinct complexion.

“I write what I want to know”2

Doerr’s prowess as a storyteller is undeniable. Stylistically, the novel draws its intensity from Doerr’s imaginative and innovative storytelling. It was the power of his prose that glued the several fragmented parts of Cloud Cuckoo Land together. He managed to write a riveting story that transported the readers through different eras and scenes. The descriptive quality of his prose vividly captured each scene. Intricate details and images abounded in the story; barriers, owls, and even the concept of paradise were richly drawn and dexterously woven by Doerr into the tapestry of the novel.

The sheer magnitude of the novel was astounding. However, like most ambitious undertakings, Doerr’s third novel, at times, crumbled under the weight of its ambitions. It had one too many elements. It had one too many perspectives. While the transitions were smooth, the plurality of its perspectives and the constant jumping in and out of different timelines muddled the story. It can be a challenge keeping up with the story. Teenage gun shooting incident, a prevalent occurrence in contemporary America, from Columbine to Sandy Hooks, was also a part of the novel. However, it was palpable how the novel’s main villain was autistic. While this storyline was redemptive, the vilification of a certain group of people, at a time when it should no longer be acceptable, undermined the overall message of the novel.

In his third novel, Doerr challenged the archetypes of storytelling. Parts-historical fiction, parts-literary fiction, parts-scientific fiction, Cloud Cuckoo Land is a complex and astounding work of contemporary fiction. The connections between the stories of the book’s main characters were not always well-defined but it is laudable for its sheer ambition and its grandeur. The myriad and the extent of the subjects it has covered, accented by dramatic battles, made for a breathtaking literary landscape. Profound messages resonated all throughout the story. But amidst the burgeoning struggles of civilizations, the novel beaconed with hopeful messages.

“What really matters is that the story gets passed on.” Literature, the novel’s primary device, is constantly threatened by disintegration but its spirit remains alive in those who treasure them and build memories around them. Get past the novel’s daunting heft and a lush story will unravel. Doerr’s storytelling is always breathtaking and Cloud Cuckoo Land was an engaging and immersive albeit labyrinthine work of literature.

Ratings

75%

Characters (30%) – 23%
Plot (30%) – 
19%
Writing (25%) – 
21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
12%

My first encounter with Anthony Doerr was back in 2016. I kept encountering his novel, All the Light We Cannot See whenever I drop by the book store. I was entranced by the book’s cover and its title and in the end, the book became part of my 2017 reading journey. When I learned that it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, my anticipation of the book doubled. I appreciated the story and the depths of its message. However, I was weighed down by the overall execution – the transitions and the pacing were off. Nevertheless, when I learned that Doerr was releasing a new work seven years after his highly-acclaimed sophomore novel, I was curious. Not really excited but curious. What does he have in store this time around? I added Cloud Cuckoo Land – a strange title – to my reading list. While I was unable to get to it in 2021, I added it to my 2022 Top 22 Reading List. The book’s heft certainly stood out but I am rarely intimidated by lengthy reads. The second element that stood out was its ambition. The novel covered a lot of ground but, at times, the book crumbled under the weight of its ambition. Doerr, nevertheless, provided a roller coaster of a reading adventure.

Book Specs

Author: Anthony Doerr
Publisher: Scribner
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 622
Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Science Fiction

Synopsis

Set in Constantinople in the fifteenth century, in a small town in present-day Idaho, and on an interstellar ship decades from now, Anthony Doerr’s gorgeous third novel is a triumph of imagination and compassion, a soaring story about children on the cusp of adulthood in worlds in peril, who find resilience, hope – and a book. In Cloud Cuckoo Land, Doerr has created a magnificent tapestry of times and places that reflects our vast interconnectedness – with other species, with each other, with those who lived before us, and with those who will be here after we’re gone.

Thirteen-year-old Anna, an orphan, lives inside the formidable walls of Constantinople in a house of women who make their living embroidering the robes of priests. Restless, insatiably curious, Anna learns to read, and in this ancient city, famous for its libraries, she finds a book, the story of Aethon, who longs to be turned into a bird so that he can fly to a utopian paradise in the sky. This she reads to her ailing sister as the walls of the only place she has known are bombarded in the great siege of Constantinople. Outside the walls is Omeir, a village boy, miles from home, conscripted with his beloved oxen into the invading army. His path and Anna’s will cross.

Five hundred years later, in a library in Idaho, octogenarian Zeno, who learned Greek as a prisoner of war, rehearses five children in a play adaptation of Aethon’s story, preserved against all odds through centuries. Tucked among the library shelves is a bomb, planted by a troubled, idealistic teenager, Seymour. This is another siege. And in a not-so-distant future, on the interstellar ship Argos, Konstance is alone in a vault, copying on scraps of sacking the story of Aethon, told to her by her father. She has never set foot on our planet.

Like Marie-Laure and Werner in All the Light We Cannot See, Anna, Omeir, Seymour, Zeno, and Konstance are dreamers and outsiders who find resourcefulness and hope in the midst of gravest danger. Their lives are gloriously intertwined. Doerr’s dazzling imagination transports us to worlds so dramatic and immersive that we forget, for a time, our own. Dedicated to “the librarians then, now, and in the years to come,” Cloud Cuckoo Land is a beautiful and redemptive novel about stewardship – of the book, of the Earth, of the human heart.

About the Author

To learn more about the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, click here.

References

1. Cummins, A 2021, ‘Anthony Doerr: ‘Rather than write what I know, I write what I want to know’’, The Guardian, accessed 09 February 2022, <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/sep/18/anthony-doerr-rather-than-write-what-i-know-i-write-what-i-want-to-know>.

2. Ibid