There was a collective cheer from the four librarians in my reading group when one of our members read Anthony Doerr’s dedication for his latest novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land. It goes like this “For the librarians then, now, and in the years to come”. Thank you Anthony! Cloud Cuckoo Land, at over 600 pages, is a big book and, like most big books, is about a lot of things, but threading through it is the idea of the book – and of the role played by librarians in fostering knowledge and reading. Indeed, the central event of the book takes place in a public library.
Those of you who have read the novel will know what I’m talking about, but for the rest of you I’ll take a step back. Anthony Doerr, from my limited experience of two novels, seems to like two things – multiple-points-of-view and young protagonists. All the light we cannot see (my review) has two protagonists from the same era, but Cloud Cuckoo Land takes it to another level with five protagonists spanning multiple centuries.
“It’s like we’re about to walk into the book” (Alex, fifth-grader)
The critical thing about these five characters is that they are outsiders – subversives, even – each confronting the received wisdom of their times. All live precarious lives. In the fifteenth century, in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria, Omeir is born with a cleft palate. Those were superstitious times, so he, his siblings, mother and grandfather are ostracised and find themselves living in a ravine miles from their village. Omeir “imagines the adventures that might lie beyond”. Over the way, in Constantinople, is Anna, a poor orphan, living with her sister in a great embroidery house where they sew for a living. She daydreams about a better life than this, and, as Constantinople falls, sets about achieving it. Meanwhile, in 20th century Idaho, Zeno is born – in 1934, to be exact. He, too, is ostracised, an “undersized orphan with foreigners blood and a weirdo name. Ahead is what?” In the same state, born early in the 21st century is Seymour, living with his impoverished, hard-working, single mother. From birth he is difficult – fussy about food, textures and sounds – suffering, the school decides, from some sort of “disorder” or “combination thereof”. Nature is his sanctuary, “amazing … Big. Alive. Ongoing”. Out there, inspired by the great grey owl he calls Trustyfriend, “lifelong knots deep inside the boy loosen”. Finally, some time into the future, on the spaceship Argos, is Konstance, stuck in a life not of her choosing, and condemned to live all of it on board. She’s imaginative and suffers for it, mystifying her mother who believed their “imaginative faculties” had been “suppressed”.
Threading through each of their stories is a fictional codex from the real Ancient Greek author, Diogenes. It features Aethon, who, having all his life “longed to see more”, wants to become “a fierce eagle or a bright strong owl” and fly to the “city in the clouds”, the titular “Cloud Cuckoo Land, where no one wants for anything”. This codex plays different roles in the lives of our protagonists but for all of them it represents, at some time, hope, dreams and the value of books.
I’ve focused a lot on these characters, but that’s because they are the book. From these introductions you can see that Doerr has chosen young people who have little agency over what happens to them. The novel explores what they do to survive and make meaningful – authentic – lives for themselves in an imperfect world. What does it take to cope?
Fundamentally, the book is about challenge and change. For Aethon, our unifying character, the journey is not simple, and he is changed into undesirable creatures like a donkey and a “humble crow”. For our other characters, life also does not go to plan, with each surprised by what it dishes up to them. There are tricks in store for them – as well as for the reader – including in the codex itself which, in the course of its journey from Ancient Greece to the future, becomes jumbled, so its true ending is lost. However, in 2020, 86-year-old Zeno’s fifth-graders, who are rehearsing his translated and dramatised version in the public library, decide on an end, one that encompasses life’s reality.
Cloud Cuckoo Land, then, is also about books, but they too are vulnerable, as the scholar Licinius tells Anna:
“… 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.”
Fortunately, though, Doerr clearly believes enough of us will safeguard them, and the novel ends way into the future with Aethon’s book being read to a young boy:
“And the tale I have to tell is so ludicrous, so incredible, that you’ll never believe a word of it, and yet”—she taps the end of his nose—“it’s true.”
As many of you will know, I love this.
Now, I’ll return to the title. “Cloud Cuckoo Land” is, literally, the name of an idyllic place in a real Ancient Greek play, Aristophanes’ The Birds, the place Aethon seeks in our codex. But, for me, the title also encompasses some interesting imagery. Cuckoos are birds, and all sorts of birds feature throughout the novel, representing nature, and freedom, amongst other things. Cuckoos, themselves, are sacred in some cultures, but some species, as we know, lay their eggs in other bird’s nests forcing, we could argue, those young to be resourceful outsiders. Then there are the “clouds”. As I read this book I couldn’t get the Joni Mitchell song “Both sides now” out of my head, with its line “it’s clouds illusions I recall .. I really don’t know clouds at all”, progressing to “life’s illusions … I really don’t know life at all”.
These two ideas – resourceful outsiders and life’s illusions – encapsulate for me this truly engaging book. Doerr presents for us life’s challenges – historic, economic, climatic – but he also offers the dreams and resourcefulness of humans in confronting these challenges. Zeno’s friend Rex describes the codex as “part fairy tale, part fool’s errand, part science fiction, part utopian satire”. This could also describe Doerr’s novel, but it is more too. Rich, complex, and highly readable, it contains multiple treasures and connections for engaged readers to find and make on their journey. I have barely skimmed its surface. It was a very popular start to my reading group’s year.
Cloud Cuckoo Land
London: 4th Estate, 2021
ISBN: 9780008478308 (e-Book)