Several years ago I fell in love with the novel “All The Light We Cannot See” (2014) by Anthony Doerr. I wasn’t alone – it was a huge success. On the New York Times’ bestseller list for more than 200 weeks, the book won a Pulitzer Prize and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and was shortlisted for the National Book Award. It is now being adapted for a Netflix series. Set during World War II, it told two stories that eventually intertwined. One focused on the young blind daughter of a museum employee who escapes Paris for Brittany during the Occupation of France. The other was about a young German boy who is a mastermind with radios and joins the Nazi campaign. It was so good that I read one of Doerr’s first books “Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World” (2007), his memoir that detailed a year spent navigating life in the Eternal City with a wife and newborn babies while on a writing fellowship he received – the prestigious Rome Prize, granted by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The author’s descriptions of being seduced by Italy, as he tried to begin writing “All the Light … ,” are superb.
This man can write, and I couldn’t wait for his latest offering, “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” which was about seven years in the making. Could it be as good as the books I read of his? No; it’s even better! A magical novel that celebrates storytellers through the ages, books and their custodians, it takes place across three cleverly interconnected storylines, stretching from 15th-century Constantinople, a small town in present-day Idaho, and a spaceship in the future.
Although it tells the stories of five major characters in three timelines, it isn’t confusing because the tales are all connected by an ancient Greek fable. “Cloud Cuckoo Land” is an adventure myth written by the Antonius Diogenes for his niece, to charm and comfort her during an illness. It comes from the Greek playwright Aristophanes’ “The Birds,” which refers to joyful fantasies, and impossible dreams that seem ridiculous except to those who greatly want to believe. In the book all the characters, despite the eras they live in, have reason to look for escape from their circumstances. The fable tells of a shepherd, Aethon, known by his neighbors as “a dull-witted mutton-headed lamebrain,” who longs to travel to a rumored paradise, a city in the sky populated by birds. To enter it, Aethon must be a bird and not a human, since humans are destroyers banned from this wonderful utopia. Aethon’s adventures and misfortunes represent the tragedies and struggles of the young, wounded and sick people in the interlinked stories. The fable, in which Aethon accidentally turns himself into a donkey while aiming to become an owl and fly to this “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” fascinates characters across the centuries. (The tale is credited in the book to the Greek Antonius Diogenes but was actually written by Doerr himself, he has told interviewers.)
The first character we meet is Anna, an orphan and inept embroidery apprentice, in 1453 Constantinople (now Istanbul), just before the fall of the Byzantine Empire. She secretly learns to read Greek by bribing a dying tutor and collects fragments of the “Cuckoo” story, retrieved from the ruins of her city. At the same time, Omeir, a peasant boy born with a cleft palate, is drafted along with his beloved oxen – Moonlight and Tree – to help transport the warring Ottoman sultan’s machine of destruction to Constantinople to penetrate the city’s walls, which Anna is preparing to flee with sack of mildewed manuscripts, stolen from an abandoned priory. The collision between Anna and Omeir is inevitable.
Later, in present-day Idaho, there’s an elderly man named Zeno Ninis, who has lived through mid-century middle America with the shame of hidden sexuality. He is staging “Cloud Cuckoo Land” as a delightful play with a group of fifth graders. He has translated it himself and, in a flashback, we see Zeno learn ancient Greek while a prisoner during the Korean War, from a fellow prisoner he loved. The children’s stage is the second floor of a library, while downstairs, a troubled young autistic teen named Seymour is threatening to create havoc with a backpack filled with explosives. He’s an eco-terrorist who believes the 21st century is doomed, and he seeks revenge for his best friend, an owl.
And finally, in the 22nd century, we meet Konstance at ages 10 to 14. She, her parents and others are on the Argos, a state-of-the-art spaceship in its 65th year of interstellar voyage to a distant planet. Konstance spends a lot of time in the ship’s library – a library that exists digitally inside the vessel’s Artifical Intelligence, Sybil. She tries to recreate the Cuckoo story, first told to her by her father. She writes it out in pieces while her own fate seems dubious and, far behind her, the Earth she never knew is ravaged and uninhabitable.
How the Cuckoo manuscript and these disparate stories fit together is explained quite late in the book and, although it may sound complicated, Doerr manages the timelines and interconnections with such elegance and skill that readers are carried along relishing the beautiful language, the captivating characters, and the mingling of genres. He describes the story as “part fairytale, part fool’s errand, part science fiction, part utopian satire” and he moves adroitly through myth, historical fiction, fantasy, drama and even romance.
This novel is a comedy as well as a tragedy. It’s a thriller in which awful things happen, some of which hit too close to home, and also a rumination on the peace of the natural world. Above all, it’s a celebration of words, of stories, of books and especially of libraries, and a tribute to the human spirit’s power to dream impossible dreams. What Doerr says about his book sums it up beautifully: “The world we’re handing our kids brims with challenges: climate instability, pandemics, disinformation. I wanted this novel to reflect those anxieties, but also offer meaningful hope, so I tried to create a tapestry of times and places that reflects our interconnectedness – with other species, with each other, with the ones who lived before us, and the ones who will be here after we’re gone.”