Cloud Cuckoo Land

by Anthony Doerr

Like All The Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr’s 2014/2015 Pulitzer winner, Cloud Cuckoo Land comes as a big surprise. It is a book within a book, as compelling as it is original, and tells the story in three timelines – well, four really (which I will explain shortly). Beginning and ending in the future with Konstanz, a teenage girl alone on a starship heading for a ‘new’ Earth, it unites its characters in the literary world of ancient Greece. The term Cloud Cuckoo Land, as readers will know, first appeared in Aristophanes’ comedy, The Birds. However, Doerr imagines a lost work by Antonius Diogenes*, which has turned up in fragments in modern times to be translated into English by Nino Zeno, one of the novel’s protagonists.

‘[Zeno] He translates one book of the Iliad, two of the Odyssey, plus an admirable slice of Plato’s Republic. Five lines on an average day, ten on a good one, scribbled onto yellow legal pads …. and stuffed into boxes beneath the dining table.’

In 2020, Zeno, an eighty-five-year-old Korean War veteran, is helping five children in an Idaho public library to rehearse a play based on Diogenes’ work. Seymour, a teen boy radicalised by climate-change terrorists, has planted a bomb in the library to be set off by five rings of a mobile phone.

‘[Seymour) The wounded man with the eyebrows has dragged himself to the base of the staircase and curled up agaonst the bottom stair. Blood is filling the upper corner of his T-shirt …. turning his neck and shoulder a vivid crimson.’

In 1453 Constantinople, Anna and Omeir are two children caught up in the seige of the city by Sultan Mehmed II. Anna is an incompetent seamstress with an adventurous disposition; Omeir is a Bulgarian boy with two giant oxen and a hare lip. Both misfits, they find themselves on opposite sides of a conflict which neither truly wants or understands.

As the plot advances, we are given glimpses of the five main characters’ past lives in relatively short chapters, hopping from one time to another with sometimes confusing rapidity.

‘[Anna] She sets the skiff afloat, climbs in, and kneels with the sack on the thwart in front of her …. Three gulls bobbing in the blacl water watch her glide past. Three a lucky number, Chryse always said: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Birth, Life, Death. Past, present future.’

We travel with Zeno as a young man to Korea, where he falls in love with a fellow combattant called Rex. We get inside Seymour’s head as he grows up in a poor household and sees the nature he loves destroyed by a new housing development for the more wealthy. They are misfits too, the former because of his sexuality, the latter possibly due to ADHD.

In 1453, as the defeat of Byzantium looms, Omeir and Anna make decisions that will test their resolve as individuals and drive them together in an unexpected and uneasy alliance.

‘[Omeir] A girl, a Greek girl. He who …. winced at the killing of trout and hens, has broken a branch over the head of a crop-headed, fair-skinned Christian girl younger than his sister.’

Konstanz is a loner too, though more by compulsion than choice. She is confined in a vault with a (perhaps malicious) AI called Sybil, but with a whole library and a virtual reality Atlas at her disposal. She is told it is for her own safety but gradually begins to doubt that Sybil has her best interests at heart.

‘A fourteen-year-old girl sits cross-legged on the floor of a circular vault. A mass of curls haloes her head; her socks are full of holes. This is Konstanz. Behind her, inside a translucent cylinder that rises sixteen feet from floor to ceiling, hangs a machine composed of trillions of golden threads…. This is Sybil. [Konstanz] has not left this room for almost a year.’

I found the novel difficult to get into; the constantly changing timelines, especially as the chapters are short, were a little confusing at first. This is a criticism similar to one I levelled at All The Light We Cannot See. However, the author has a skill at both storytelling and characterisation so that, once I got over my initial disorientation, I wanted to – and had to – read on.

With a fantasy element reminiscent of the Matrix film series, there is sci-fi; with another, an essentially classic one bound up in the incomplete narration of Aethon, first person protagonist of Diogenes’ tale, there is humour. The book’s themes of climate change, a ravaged Earth, and human characters who are ‘different’, but who keep going, give the novel a modern, yet ominous slant. Those of books, learning and libraries give it a connection with a past which is somewhat sad and pointless, yet always hopeful.

Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you.’

I don’t know, having finished Cloud Cuckoo Land, whether amazement was my immediate emotion. However, I was certainly charmed by Anthony Doerr’s prose, educated by his imaginative plotting and glad he was able to bring the threads together at the end. At various stages throughout, I began to intuit where the separate stories might be heading, but the final resolution was unexpected. Maybe this one won’t win a Pulitzer but it is an entertaining and absorbing read despite my minor niggle over the structure.

*Diogenes was a real writer, although he did not write a novel entitled Cloud Cuckoo Land – as far as we know.


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