Book review: Anthony Doerr dreams big with 'Cloud Cuckoo Land'
"Cloud Cuckoo Land" by Anthony Doerr (Scribner)
How do you follow up a Pulitzer Prize-winning work of fiction? If you're novelist Anthony Doerr ("All the Light We Cannot See") you write a story that consists of five separate stories, spans millennia, and all ties together with a fictional manuscript attributed to the ancient Greek novelist Antonius Diogenes called "Cloud Cuckoo Land."
Sound a little, well, cuckoo? It sort of is, but it's also admirable in its ambition. Doerr's ability to juggle all the stories and interlock them over the course of 600+ pages is quite a literary feat. It helps that the characters in the sub-stories are so likable, even when, like a teenager named Seymour in modern-day Idaho, they're under the thrall of an eco-terrorist group.
What really binds them all, and one of the themes Doerr explores, is the timeless nature and necessity of storytelling. The "Cloud Cuckoo Land" manuscript is discovered in a tomb inside a wooden chest with the inscription: "Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you." And at one point or another in their lives, all the characters do just that, finding comfort and solace in libraries, the stories they contain, and in particular, "Cloud Cuckoo Land," a phrase Doerr adopted from the real Greek playwright Aristophanes and turned into a manuscript about a shepherd's fantastical journey to a utopia in the sky. "A text -- a book -- is a resting place for the memories of people who have lived before," a teacher tells young Anna in 15th-century Constantinople.
Passages from "Cloud Cuckoo Land," which we later learn were translated by one of the novel's characters, break up the individual characters' stories. But piecing together the plot of the manuscript is not the point. The novel within the novel serves another purpose. It's the story that gives all the characters the freedom to dream.
Some, like Anna and Omeir, an oxherd on opposite sides of Constantinople's walls during a siege of the city, long for a better life not filled with war and hunger. Seymour, the teenage idealist in today's Idaho, is angry that a forest he found solace in as a child has been destroyed to build a housing development. Zeno is 80-something when we first meet him, directing a children's play of "Cloud Cuckoo Land" at the Lakeport, Idaho, public library. His back story is a novel of its own -- from early orphanhood to the Korean War, where he meets a fellow soldier who changes his life.
And then there's Konstance, floating on a ship in interstellar space in the 22nd century because her fellow humans made Earth inhospitable. Lucky for her, and us, she has access to a supercomputer named Sybil, who is essentially a limitless virtual library that can help her sort out the past.
If it all sounds like a lot, that's because it is. But it's the kind of thing only a novel can do. And it's a trip well worth taking with the inimitable Doerr.