Anthony Doer's new novel reveals the longing of the soul.
Anthony Doer, Pulitzer Prize winning author of All the Light We Cannot See, has followed this book with Cloud Cuckoo Land, a book of fiction even more remarkable than his prize-winning novel of a French blind girl during WWII. Cloud Cuckoo Land, beautifully written with pellucid sentences that are often multisensory and poetic, is one of those books that saddens you when it ends, because it is so gripping. Even though it ends well.
The title comes from Aristophanes, but the book purports to be from an ancient Greek comedy by Antonius Diogenes, whose text is quite damaged but is translated by Zino Ninis. It is the discovery of this text, and how it has affected its main characters as it has travelled through time, that ties this complex book together. The text is discovered by Anna in Constantinople just before its fall. She is in the house-factory of seamstresses run by an avaricious and cruel master. She is a dismal seamstress, while her sister is a seamstress artisan. The discovery of the text results in her sister being severely damaged by this master. The sultan’s Muslim forces have impressed disfigured Omeir and his beloved oxen to help haul a massive canon to that city that will pulverize its walls.
In the present, Seymour, another “challenged “individual, is seeing his beloved wilderness with its owl, Trustyfriend, being torn apart by developers. In the rundown Lakeport Public Library, Zeno is staging a play called “Cloud Cuckoo Land” with five children upstairs, while Seymour has a backpack downstairs with a bomb in it, and police cars flashing their lights gather outside. Later in the book, the symbol of the owl takes on significance.
And then there is the story of Konstance, a bright girl on the Argos, a spaceship fleeing an uninhabitable earth, damaged by climate change. She is bound for a livable planet thousands of lightyears away.
The book itself is massive, but its chapters are short and often end with cliff-hangers. You want to know what’s going to happen next to the characters and how Doer is going to make all the many threads of this story become a final, compelling tapestry. Which he does. Without any loose ends.
The themes in this book are not specifically Christian but they are universal, and in that sense, do speak to Christians. Since we all are created in the image of God, there exists, as C. S. Lewis has pointed out (The Abolition of Man), a transcultural and transhistorical sense of an “oughtness”. Great literature, great music, and great art often address this "oughtness", even when it is created by someone who might even be antagonistic to the faith. Which Doer doesn't appear to be.
One theme of Cloud Cuckoo Land is the importance of story and how it expresses our human complexities and yearnings. Another is the fragility of ancient texts, particularly the number of ancient manuscripts that are now lost, thus the very real theme of mortality and being forgotten. Another is that of transformation and the interwoven stories of past, present, and future that have influenced our lives, but of which we are not aware. Stories that are united by words, and in the case of the Christian, the Word.
But to me, the most compelling theme that speaks to the Christian in this book is the universal yearning for something more resplendent and transcendent than what we must face daily, a yearning for a city in the clouds where one’s needs are not only met but are celebrated with joy. I am reminded of the celestial city of Hebrews 12:22–24 (ESV), “ But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”