Seven years on from All the Light We Cannot See, Pulitzer Prize winning author ANTHONY DOERR has returned with Cloud Cuckoo Land, an epic, century-spanning tale about the power of stories to connect us.
As HEATHER LEWIS writes, it’s an important and prescient tale about the marks we leave on the world around us.
We all get to that point in life where we start to think about what we might leave behind – for our kids, for the world. After all, with pandemic and climate threats looming, it’s hard not to get a bit existential. While it’s unlikely many of us will make a huge, definitive impact on the world the least we can do is try our best to leave it a little bit better than we found it.
This idea of stewardship permeates throughout Anthony Doerr’s latest novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, released seven years after his beloved and bestselling novel All the Light We Cannot See. It was, of all things, middle age that inspired the Idaho author’s epic.
‘Getting towards 50 now and seeing my kids grow, it’s been a wonderful reminder that all things are erased from the world, and what matters most is what we choose to be stewards of while we’re here. I tried to explore the idea that little decisions we make could have consequences for the generations to come, and I think it’s exciting we can make a difference if we make the right decisions now.’
Through five separate stories spanning centuries and continents, Cloud Cuckoo Land follows the journey of a mythical text, also titled Cloud Cuckoo Land, written by the illusive Greek writer Antonius Diogenes. In it, humble shepherd Aethon hears a tale of a utopian paradise and dedicates himself to going there, facing hardship and mischievous characters that stand in his way with riddles and spells. Despite being turned into a donkey at one point, Aethon never loses his drive, even as utopia slips further from his grasp.
Anthony tells fragments of Aethon’s journey at the beginning of each of the 24 sections that also include a chapter from each of the five characters, who have some sort of role in the text’s life.
‘I wanted to have thematic resonances with what was happening in each section, happening somewhat at least in line with each of the character sections as we reach them.’
In 15th century Constantinople there’s Anna, a young seamstress who, while raiding a library with a young thief to raise money for her ailing sister, finds the mangled manuscript of Cloud Cuckoo Land. With her knowledge of Ancient Greek she understands its significance, and aims to keep it safe as the Ottoman Empire prepare to lay siege to the city.
On the other side of the wall, Omeir assists in the war effort with his two oxen, Moonlight and Tree. Having been born with a cleft palate and subsequently demonised his entire life, he finds greater connection with his animals than any humans, and sees little point in the war effort he and his oxen assist in. Despite language and cultural barriers, he and Anna find themselves drawn together by the manuscript, and their shared desire to escape war.
‘I’m really interested in new technologies,’ Anthony says. ‘The genesis of Cloud Cuckoo Land was reading about the history of defensive walls, like the walls of Constantinople. It’s a human technology we’re not used to thinking of as technology. Walls provided defence and ownership, it also set off this technological arms race of “How do we knock down walls and get over walls?” So, I started with those two characters, Anna inside the walls and Omeir outside, and there’s a massive convergence of technologies. It made sense for me to dramatise how texts survive.’
Centuries later in Lakeport, Idaho, a young man named Zeno seeks solace from his miserable homelife in the tales from Greek Mythology told to him by his local librarians. Later, while interned in a POW camp during the Korean War, he meets Rex who teaches him Ancient Greek. A life of love found during war and the desire to continue a legacy inspires Zeno to translate a seemingly untranslatable Ancient Greek text for a group of kids at the same library he discovered the joy of stories.
‘It’s interesting for a reader to see the ball work its way down through the pegs of history into Konstance’s lap.’
Meanwhile, an impoverished, idealistic and radicalised young man, Seymour, rages against a world that seemingly doesn’t care about looking after the planet. To take revenge on the real estate company that destroyed the patch of nature behind his home, he plants a bomb in the local library adjacent to it. Unbeknownst to him, Zeno and his five students reside inside.
‘Seymour’s sensitive like me but he’s wounded, attached emotionally to a little patch of forest behind his home, and when that’s destroyed for development, it’s devastating. I hope young readers can identify with him in some way, this overwhelming nature of feedback loops building on each other, and this wondering of what the grown-ups are doing to fix this, and why are we treating private property and money as the only god we worship.’
Lastly, in the near future, young girl Konstance lives on a ship destined for life on a planet light years away. When the ship is struck by a mysterious virus, she’s quarantined with the ship’s supercomputer, and uses her time in isolation to piece together the origins of a mythical story her father often told her – that of the idealistic Aethon and his vision of Utopia.
‘It’s interesting for a reader to see the ball work its way down through the pegs of history into Konstance’s lap. I wanted to explore so many things; where are we going, what will it look like. The message here is we’ve only got one planet, home is the most important thing we have and we all share it, and what’s needed right now is a planetary perspective, not a tribal one. Konstance reminds us of that potential future, and to give us some hope. She’s the detective piecing together the whole puzzle.’
To Anthony, every character has a key role in the journey of the text across time and space. Anna is the discoverer, Omeir is the shepherd, Zeno is the translator, Seymour is the publisher, and Konstance is the one the text is destined for. This idea of connection across time through art lies at the core of the novel. Each character faces hardship but finds themselves buoyed by the titular text, either by Aethon’s hopefulness in the face of adversity, or their destiny in keeping this text alive.
‘There are so many forces of severing in our lives right now, from the systems that sustain us. Art, in particular stories, is one way to reimagine, to remind us of the interconnections. That’s what we need right now – we’re connected to each other in all these surprising ways. Being able to train our imaginations to make leaps between seemingly unconnected things, that’s the lesson of the world.’
Cloud Cuckoo Land is an ode to arguably one of the most important stewards in the world – the librarian. The book is dedicated to ‘librarians then, now, and in the years to come’, and several characters in the novel find comfort from the kindness and willingness to share knowledge of librarians, and the wealth of history found in the books they keep. Each of the five protagonists are librarians in their own right, preserving an important text and presenting it for a new generation of readers. Anthony says it’s indicative of what our true purpose on earth should be – preservation.
‘Growing up, you think of books as things that just appear on shelves, like leaves on trees. You don’t realise that people are making them. Stewards are everything – librarians really are teachers, stewards of culture, and they’re also keeping alive this idea that we’re not so important. You have to take a breath and look around and remember your own mortality, and what a privilege it is to get to be here. Our real job is to be a steward of this place and take care of each other.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anthony Doerr was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio.
He is the author of the story collections the novels About Grace, All the Light We Cannot See, which was awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.
Cloud Cuckoo Land, which was a finalist for the 2021 National Book Award, a finalist for Novel of the Year in the British Book Awards, and winner of the Grand prix de littérature américaine in France.
Doerr’s short stories and essays have won five O. Henry Prizes. His work has been translated into over forty different languages.
All the Light We Cannot See was a #1 New York Times bestseller, remained on the New York Times Bestseller List for over 200 weeks.
Doerr lives in Boise, Idaho. Though he is often asked, as far as he knows he is not related to the late writer Harriet Doerr.