Ὦ ξένε, ὅστις εἶ, ἄνοιξον, ἵνα μάθῃς ἃ θαυμάζεις
“Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you.”
This passage, in ancient Greek and in translation, is the key to Cloud Cuckoo Land, a big, ambitious, complicated novel by Anthony Doerr, the latest from the author of the magnificent, Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See (2014). Classicists will recognize “Cloud Cuckoo Land” as borrowed from The Birds, the 414 BCE comedy by the Athenian satirist Aristophanes, a city in the sky constructed by birds that later became synonymous for any kind of fanciful world. In this case, Cloud Cuckoo Land serves as the purported title of a long-lost ancient work by Antonius Diogenes, rediscovered as a damaged but partially translatable codex in 2019, that relates the tale of Aethon, a hapless shepherd who transforms into a donkey, then into a fish, then into a crow, in a quest to reach that utopian city in the clouds. It serves as well as the literary glue that binds together the narrative and the central protagonists of Doerr’s novel.
There is the octogenarian Zeno, self-taught in classical Greek, who has translated the fragmentary codex and adapted it into a play that is to be performed by fifth graders in the public library located in Lakeport, Idaho in 2020. Lurking in the vicinity is Seymour, an alienated teen with Asperger’s, flirting with eco-terrorism. And hundreds of years in the past, there is also the thirteen-year-old Anna, who has happened upon that same codex in Constantinople, on the eve of its fall to the Turks. Among the thousands of besiegers outside the city’s walls is Omeir, a harelipped youngster who with his team of oxen was conscripted to serve the Sultan in the cause of toppling the Byzantine capital. Finally, there is Konstance, fourteen years old, who has lived her entire life on the Argos, a twenty-second century spacecraft destined for a distant planet; she too comes to discover “Cloud Cuckoo Land.”
Alternating chapters, some short, others far longer, tell the stories of each protagonist, in real time or through flashbacks. For the long-lived Zeno, readers follow his hardscrabble youth, his struggle with his closeted homosexuality, his stint as a POW in the Korean War, and his long love affair with the language of the ancient Greeks. We observe how an uncertain and frequently bullied Seymour reacts to the destruction of wilderness and wildlife in his own geography. We watch the rebellious Anna abjure her work as a lowly seamstress to clandestinely translate the codex. We learn how the disfigured-at-birth Omeir is at first nearly left to die, then exiled along with his family because villagers believe he is a demon. We see Konstance, trapped in quarantine in what appears to be deep space, explore the old earth through an “atlas” in the ship’s library.
Cloud Cuckoo Land is in turn fascinating and captivating, but sometimes—unfortunately—also dull. There are not only the central protagonists to contend with, but also a number of secondary characters in each of their respective orbits, as well as the multiple timelines spanning centuries, so there is much to keep track of. I recall being so spellbound by All the Light We Cannot See that I read its entire 500-plus pages over a single weekend. This novel, much longer, did not hook me with a similar force. I found it a slow build: my enthusiasm tended to simmer rather than surge. Alas, I wanted to care about the characters far more than I did. Still, the second half of the novel is a much more exciting read than the first portion.
Science—in multiple disciplines—is often central to a Doerr novel. That was certainly the case in All the Light We Cannot See, as well as in his earlier work, About Grace. In Cloud Cuckoo Land, in contrast, science—while hardly absent—takes a backseat. The sci-fi in the Argos voyage is pretty cool, but hardly the stuff of Asimov or Heinlein. And Seymour’s science of climate catastrophe strikes as little more than an afterthought in the narrative.
Multiple individuals with lives on separate trajectories centuries apart whose exploits resonated larger and often overlapping themes reminded me at first of another work with a cloud in its title: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. But Cloud Cuckoo Land lacks the spectacular brilliance of that novel, which manages to take your very breath away. It also falls short of the depth and intricacy that powers Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. And yet … and yet … I ended up really enjoying the book, even shedding a tear or two in its final pages. So there’s that. In the final analysis, Doerr is a talented writer and if this is not his finest work, it remains well worth the read.
I have reviewed other novels by Anthony Doerr here: