My mental image at the conclusion of Anthony Doerr’s magnificent “Cloud Cuckoo Land” was that of a juggler. Not just any juggler, but a Vegas-type juggler who was hurling five chain saws into the air and effortlessly keeping them all in parabolic orbit.
I realized, though, that what Doerr has achieved is far more impressive than keeping five chain saws in the air, because the chain saws all weigh about the same and would be easier to manage than one chain saw and four bladed weapons or tools of varying weight (trust me on this, I took a juggling class in college). “Cloud Cuckoo Land” is the literary equivalent of one of the greatest juggling feats of all-time!
Doerr spins five disparate tales that span centuries and continents into improbable gold.
There is the story of Zeno, a closeted gay man, a POW during the Korean War, winding down his days alone in the Lakeport city library in Idaho.
There is Seymour, a teenage boy in the same town who wears ear defenders to keep out the noises that constantly bombard his thoughts and can only find peace in the quiet woods behind his double-wide beneath the gaze of an owl he names Trustyfriend.
There is 13-year-old Konstance, who is living in a spaceship hurtling through outer space trying to find another hospitable planet since mankind seems to have destroyed the Earth.
There is Anna, a young seamstress living in Constantinople during the 1400s, and Omeir, a young boy who is conscripted along with his two beloved oxen into the sultan’s army that is laying siege to Anna’s walled city.
And running through these stories, like a thread of fine silk, is a found Greek text about a man searching for the mythical and magical Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Somehow Doerr, as both author and juggler, makes it all work with a satisfying conclusion that is tender in its reflections on life and our failings as people. Even Seymour, hounded and maddened by the clamor in his head and outraged by man’s assault on the natural world, softens in his hatred and anger.
“By age seventeen he’d convinced himself that every human he saw was a parasite, captive to the dictates of consumption. But as he reconstructs Zeno’s translation, he realizes the truth is infinitely more complicated, that we are all beautiful even as we are all part of the problem, and that to be a part of the problem is to be human.”
In the Greek story, Cloud Cuckoo Land is a city in the heavens where there is beauty and fulfillment everywhere. There is no pain or sorrow. Doerr shows that humanity and the world are much more interesting where jugglers occasionally fumble—even if “Cloud Cuckoo Land” does not.
Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer in Spotsylvania.