From Anthony Doerr, an Ode to Storytelling That Shows How It’s Done

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By Marcel Theroux

By Anthony Doerr

“Manuscripts don’t burn,” says the fiendish Woland in Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel “The Master and Margarita.” This stirring claim is often taken to mean that great art never perishes, but it’s certainly not literally true. Manuscripts are only slightly more robust than the humans who write them. Fire, mildew, carelessness, water, censorship, indifference and a need for cheap paper have annihilated many undoubted masterpieces. A bibliophile in Anthony Doerr’s new novel, “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” reminds us how many of the works of the Greek tragedians have been lost: “We know that at least one thousand of them were written and performed in Greek theaters in the fifth century B.C. You know how many we have left? Thirty-two.”

In fact, there’s a vast notional library of vanished books that includes Aristotle’s treatise on comedy, Shakespeare’s “Cardenio,” Melville’s “The Isle of the Cross,” several books of the Bible, Byron’s memoirs, the second volume of Gogol’s “Dead Souls,” and “Inventio Fortunata,” a 14th-century travel book about the Arctic.

“Cloud Cuckoo Land,” a follow-up to Doerr’s best-selling novel “All the Light We Cannot See,” is, among other things, a paean to the nameless people who have played a role in the transmission of ancient texts and preserved the tales they tell. But it’s also about the consolations of stories and the balm they have provided for millenniums. It’s a wildly inventive novel that teems with life, straddles an enormous range of experience and learning, and embodies the storytelling gifts that it celebrates. It also pulls off a resolution that feels both surprising and inevitable, and that compels you back to the opening of the book with a head-shake of admiration at the Swiss-watchery of its construction.

[ Read our profile of Doerr. ]

The novel follows five characters in three different historical epochs, who at first seem like the protagonists of separate books. In present-day Idaho, we meet Zeno Ninis. As the book opens, Zeno is in his 80s and directing a play he’s written for a cast of children at the local library. The rehearsal is jarringly interrupted by the intrusion of Seymour Stuhlman, who’s armed and carrying an explosive device. It’s to Doerr’s credit that he quickly manages to humanize Seymour, a lonely young misfit who has become a radical misanthrope after developers encroached on the wilderness he loves. As events at the library threaten to spin out of control, the scene shifts and we find ourselves 500 years earlier, in 15th-century Thrace, meeting a harelipped character named Omeir, whose oxen have been requisitioned for the siege of Constantinople. Separately, inside the besieged city, the orphaned seamstress Anna has developed herself a side hustle as a cat burglar to raise money for her sick sister, Maria. And just to complicate matters, there’s an additional story line set on a spacecraft in the 22nd century, where a young teenager called Konstance is traveling in search of a more promising habitation than the blighted Earth she and her fellow passengers have left behind.

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    What can possibly connect such an odd bunch of people? One minute we’re haggling with Venetian book collectors in a besieged city, the next, a single mother in Idaho is struggling to pay her bills, or someone in a hermetically sealed spaceship is wondering how a beetle got in there. It’s an amazing feat that drawing from such disparate story lines, Doerr manages to keep the book compelling, coherent and moving.

    It helps that the characters are all versions of a mythic archetype. Each is a wounded outsider who is initiated into a mystery, embarks on a journey, suffers and eventually effects a final homecoming. For Anna, her awakening comes when she begins learning Greek from a goitrous tutor in Constantinople. For Seymour, it’s an encounter with an owl in the woods behind his home. Konstance’s avocation becomes clear when she learns the true purpose of the spacecraft’s mission in its weird virtual library. Pressed into war, Omeir merely yearns to get back to the family farm. Meanwhile the younger Zeno’s early encounters with myth at the local library feed into a belated ambition to be a translator from ancient Greek. To begin with, you have to take it on trust that all these elements somehow form part of a whole. Then bit by bit, the nature of the connections between each story comes tantalizingly into focus.

    The play that Zeno is directing in the present day is a work by Diogenes that he’s translated from ancient Greek. Fragments of this book, “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” punctuate the novel. It tells the story of Aethon, whose mishaps and transformations echo the ups and downs of the other characters. Broadly speaking, the story of how this book — itself an invention of the author — narrowly escapes destruction is the thread that links the different narratives. Diogenes’ odd little fable owes its material survival to the care of the five main characters, and in return it sprinkles its magic into each of their lives.

    Doerr’s storytelling is bracing and energetic. His characters are engaging and, as readers of “All the Light We Cannot See” will recall, he’s nailed a particular style of rhythmic incantatory prose that uses crunchy present-tense verbs and vivid detail to grip the reader’s attention. Climate change, ecoterrorism, ancient Greek, the Renaissance, the Ottoman Empire, metallurgy and the economic hardship of being a single mother in 21st-century Idaho are all dealt with in crisp, swiftly moving sentences. Above all, Doerr understands the pulse of changing fortune, the switches of destiny from good to bad and back again that have been the heartbeat of great storytelling since “Gilgamesh” and the “Popol Vuh.”

    Although “Cloud Cuckoo Land” is a thoughtful, learned book, it’s also accessible. This feels like both an aesthetic choice and — in the broadest sense — a political one. Throughout the novel, Diogenes’ story brings comfort to people in hard times. During a spell in Korea serving with the military, Zeno is captured and his closeted sexuality is tested by a passion for a fellow prisoner of war, Rex. “I know why those librarians read the old stories to you,” Rex tells him. “Because if it’s told well enough, for as long as the story lasts, you get to slip the trap.” Zeno ponders this insight later in life as he watches his cast during the rehearsals for his play. “These are the kids, he realizes, without club volleyball or math tutors or boat slips at the marina.” Finally understanding whom he’s writing for, Zeno is able to let go of the notion that he’s creating art for an abstract audience of patricians. “All those academic commentaries he forced himself to read — was Diogenes writing lowbrow comedy or elaborate metafiction? — in the face of five fifth graders, smelling of chewing gum, sweaty socks and wildfire smoke, those debates flew out the window. Diogenes, whoever he was, was primarily trying to make a machine that captured attention, something to slip the trap.”

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

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