Book Review: “Cloud Cuckoo Land”, by Anthony Doerr


By Anthony Doerr

“The manuscripts do not burn,” says the evil Woland in Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel “The Master and Margarita”. This moving claim is often taken to mean that great art never perishes, but it is certainly not literally true. Manuscripts are only slightly more robust than the humans who write them. Fire, mold, recklessness, water, censorship, indifference, and the need for cheap paper have wiped out many indisputable masterpieces. A bibliophile of Anthony Doerr’s new novel ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’ reminds us of how many works by Greek tragedians have been lost: ‘We know that at least a thousand of them were written and performed in Greek theaters. in the 5th century. BC Do you know how much we have left? Thirty two.”

In fact, there is an extensive theoretical library of extinct books which includes Aristotle’s treatise on comedy, Shakespeare’s “Cardenio”, Melville’s “Island of the Cross”, several books from the Bible, the memoirs of Byron, the second volume of Gogol’s “Dead Souls”. And “Inventio Fortunata”, a 14th century travel book on the Arctic.

“Cloud Cuckoo Land”, a sequel to Doerr’s best-selling novel “All the Light We Can’t See”, is, among other things, a hymn to the anonymous people who played a role in the transmission of ancient texts and preserved them. stories they tell. But it is also about the consolations of stories and the balm they have provided for millennia. It’s a wildly inventive novel that is teeming with life, straddling a wide range of experiences and learning, and embodies the gifts of storytelling it celebrates. It also pulls a resolution that is both surprising and inevitable, and which requires you to return to the opening of the book with a nod of admiration at the Swiss watchmaking of its construction.

[ Read our profile of Doerr. ]

The novel follows five characters in three different historical eras, who at first glance seem to be the protagonists of separate books. In present-day Idaho, we meet Zeno Ninis. At the start of the book, Zeno is 80 years old and conducts a play he wrote for a group of children at the local library. The rehearsal is abruptly interrupted by the intrusion of Seymour Stuhlman, armed and carrying an explosive device. It is to Doerr’s credit that he quickly manages to humanize Seymour, a lonely young misfit who has become a radical misanthropist after developers encroach on the wilderness he loves. As library events threaten to spiral out of control, the scene changes and we find ourselves 500 years earlier, in 15th century Thrace, encountering a red-lipped figure named Omeir, whose oxen were requisitioned. for the siege of Constantinople. Separately, inside the besieged city, orphaned seamstress Anna developed a side business as a cat burglar to raise funds for her ailing sister, Maria. And just to complicate matters, there’s an additional story set on a spaceship in the 22nd century, where a young teenage girl called Konstance travels in search of a home more promising than the devastated Earth than she and her companions. of travel left behind.

What can possibly connect such a strange group of people? One minute we’re haggling with Venetian book collectors in a besieged town, the next, a single Idaho mother struggles to pay her bills, or someone in a tightly sealed spaceship wonders how a beetle is. entered there. It’s an incredible feat that by drawing inspiration from such disparate storylines, Doerr manages to keep the book compelling, cohesive, and moving.

It helps that the characters are all versions of a mythical archetype. Each is a wounded stranger who is initiated into a mystery, embarks on a journey, suffers, and ultimately makes a final return. For Anna, she wakes up when she begins to learn Greek from a goitrous tutor in Constantinople. For Seymour, it’s an encounter with an owl in the woods behind his house. Konstance’s calling becomes clear when she discovers the true purpose of the spaceship’s mission in her bizarre virtual library. Pushed into the war, Omeir simply longs to return to the family farm. Meanwhile, young Zeno’s first encounters with the myth at the local library fuel a belated ambition to be a translator from ancient Greek. To begin with, you have to make sure that all of these elements are somehow part of a whole. Then, little by little, the nature of the links between each story becomes evident in a tantalizing way.

The play that Zeno is staging today is a work by Diogenes which he translated from ancient Greek. Fragments of this book, “Cloud Cuckoo Land”, punctuate the novel. It tells the story of Aethon, whose misadventures and transformations echo the ups and downs of the other characters. Generally speaking, the story of how this book – itself an invention of the author – narrowly escapes destruction is the thread that connects the various narratives. Diogenes’ strange little fable owes its material survival to the care of the five main characters, and in return, it sprinkles its magic in each of their lives.

Doerr’s narration is invigorating and energetic. His characters are endearing and, as readers of “All the Light We Cannot See” will recall, he achieved a distinctive style of rhythmic incantatory prose that uses crisp present tense verbs and vivid detail to capture the attention of the book. reader. Climate change, ecoterrorism, ancient Greek, the Renaissance, the Ottoman Empire, metallurgy, and the economic hardships of being a single mother in 21st century Idaho are all dealt with in crisp, quick sentences. Above all, Doerr understands the pulse of changing fortune, the changes of fate from good to bad and back again that have been the heart of the great storytelling since “Gilgamesh” and “Popol Vuh”.

Although “Cloud Cuckoo Land” is a thoughtful and scholarly book, it is also accessible. It sounds like both an aesthetic choice and, in the broadest sense, a political choice. Throughout the novel, the story of Diogenes brings comfort to people in difficult times. While in Korea serving the military, Zeno is captured and his locked up sexuality is put to the test by a passion for fellow POW, Rex. “I know why these librarians read you old stories,” Rex told him. “Because if it’s told well enough, as long as the story lasts, you escape the trap. Zeno reflects on this idea later in life as he watches his casting during rehearsals for his play. “It’s the kids,” he realizes, “without a volleyball club, math teachers or boat slips at the marina.” Understanding finally for whom he writes, Zeno is able to abandon the idea that he creates art for an abstract audience of patricians. “All those academic comments that he forced himself to read – Was Diogenes writing a lowbrow comedy or an elaborate metafiction? – in front of five fifth graders, smelling of chewing gum, sweaty socks and forest fire smoke, these debates flew out the window. Diogenes, whoever he was, was mainly trying to make an attention grabbing machine, something to thwart the trap.

In fact, Doerr’s is much more than a mechanistic or childish device to pass the time. It is a humane, uplifting book for adults that is imbued with the magic of childhood reading experiences. “Cloud Cuckoo Land” is ultimately a celebration of books, the power and possibilities of reading. Manuscripts to do burn, but the fact that we’ve kept so many of them and still find continuing value in reading them is an aspect of our humanity that this novel rightly celebrates.


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