One of the most common of compliments or descriptions of a writer is that he or she is a weaver of stories. But it seems even more applicable to Anthony Doerr's Cloud Cuckoo Land, an intricately interwoven and consecutive path of eight different stories that stretches over the course of nearly a thousand years, each one mirroring the others and yet following characters who are unmistakably their own people, deeply distinct and human. It's a moving and profound story of the human search for something greater and grander than regular life and that yet in the end we find meaning in the simplicity and beauty of our quotidian existence. At its heart is Cloud Cuckoo Land itself, an invented Greek story, but which is written with such conviction and charm that it becomes a vividly real tale, convincingly akin to one of the Greek tales, even to the point of commentary on its historical-literary merits. Anthony Doerr's way of writing Cloud Cuckoo Land, as its text steadily dwindles to illegibility, the growing sparseness and the need to fill in the gaps: it adds dramatically to the effect. One can easily be forgiven for reaching the end and thinking Cloud Cuckoo land is real: I thought it was, and that the author was inspired by it.
And what is Cloud Cuckoo Land? The search for the greener pasture somewhere else, the belief that a land exists which is beyond the ugliness of our world, something brighter and perfect. And yet the search for this world is revealed as illusionary: most potently in Konstance, whose golden future turns out to be an illusion, created to render her complacent, a fantasy that crumbles, but also in Seymour, misled into tragedy by his search for utopia, or Omeir whose fate sets him on a course for the shining city of Constantinople. All in the end find their life and satisfaction in a quieter and humdrum life.
The quiet simplicity and charm of the emotions is a note of beauty shot through. Omeir and his oxen, whose simple goodness makes for a feeling of tragedy from their death greater than any human. Unassuming love behind barbed wire, the little moments of Greek poetry in the sun next to a ramshackle barracks. A young man and a young woman, who ultimately come together after a traumatic experience, not with great declarations of love but simply life continuing: a naturalness that makes it seem unassuming. Children and their ability to pierce the over-complexity of the adult world, seeing a story not as an academic exercise but rather as just what it is: a story, a human creation for a human being.
The weaving together of stories together is particularly well done by Doerr since he manages to write a completely natural and convincing story which link together at the end. following a winding path which traverses the years with brilliant twists and turns. Each of the stories links to another, from the discovery and preservation of Cloud Cuckoo Land, to its translation, the inspiration, and the way in which it affects the people around it. They link together and connect to each other: the transformation into a donkey and the way in which the main character of Cloud Cuckoo Land, Aethon, realizes his folly in his search for paradise, is the same as Seymour who in the height of good intentions is transformed into a monster. Perhaps they link even more than we know: after all, Omeir and Anna could easily serve as distant ancestors of Zeno, but there’s no way of knowing for sure after all. But there is definitely an intellectual link between them: Cloud Cuckoo Land which ties them all together.
But this is what the moral ambiguity at the heart of the book is to me: the declaration that these searches for utopia are wrong. This most vividly comes forth in the spaceship where Konstance is, and in the tale of Cloud Cuckoo Land itself, as well as Seymour in a more brutal way. Both are attempts to reach a place of plenty and to escape the woes of Earth: in both, there is the realization that this journey carries its own perils and that the paradise which we search for is not as perfect as we dream of. But this implicit condemnation of this style of utopia seeking neglects the pain that drove them forth: the wandering spirit and the search for perfection that drives humanity on. Is not the synthesis to acknowledge that utopia will never be reached, and yet that to be human is to constantly strive for it?
The plot arc which is most monumental is Seymour, who reaches his nadir with the terrorist attack on the library, and yet then spends much of the rest of his life atoning for his action, dealing with the question of what it means to do good. Good is more than just to make everything look correct, to remove the appearance of evil: good is to struggle to reveal the truth. Seymour’s beloved animal is the owl: Trustyfriend, his name for the great grey owl he befriends. Owls: the symbol for wisdom and incredible listeners: what better symbol for Seymour, who is intelligent - unable to soothe himself, always on edge, always listening too much. I have no doubt that Seymour would have been an intensely annoying and frustrating person in his youth, unable to restrain himself and to accept a flawed humanity: this is what makes his redemption over the course of time so meaningful, as he grows to accept humans, and he uses the symbol of an owl as a way to cut through illusions.
Cloud Cuckoo Land is charming story, deceptively simple, with twists that transform it into something more complicated, but at heart a story about people, simple individuals trying to live life and find meaning in it. It’s based above all else around young people, who struggle to find their place in society, who really do feel to embody a sense of vulnerable innocence. It doesn’t deal with greatly complicated ideas, but as a young adult book it weaves together an intricate nest of stories which reveal a greater tapestry. Stick with it as it gathers together the tendrils, and you will get a thread out of it that is fascinating to read.