There are books readers like because they make them feel good about being a reader (think Shadow of the Wind or the recently reviewed Last Chance Library) . Books that stroke the ego –you are okay because you spend time thinking about things, going slowly through the pages of fat novels, valuing ideas and argument. Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land is one of these books, but more than that it’s a book that tries to assure the reader that, while all evidence points to the imminent collapse of humanity (and the book doesn’t skirt this point), people are okay or will be okay because there are books. It is an extremely soothing thing to read in 2022.
Let me explain. [Spoilers abound, as they do in all my reviews, so do what you want]
The novel has three competing temporal settings – the semi-near future of a technological and climate apocalypse; the almost immediate present of the time just before the pandemic* like so almost immediate as to be literally February 2020 (an important point on pre- and post- pandemic novels I want to return to); and the past of the 1500s with the fall of Constantinople. Oh and a little detour to the Korean war.
And five narrators. Konstance, our futuristic child trapped [or is she] on a spaceship (aptly named the Argos) searching for a new planet after the ecological devastation of Earth renders it uninhabitable; Zeno the Korean war vet turned snow plow driver turned Greek translator turned children’s theatre producer who was always gay and in his last moments acknowledges it and maybe that matters but probably it doesn’t; Seymour, the autistic – or is he just sensitive to noise – climate activist who genuinely believes blowing up a housing development office is going to bring about global systemic change; Anna the Greek child who was never going to fit in as an embroidress because she is too Impish and Adventurous, but then is somehow okay to spend her life milking cows; and finally Omeir who loves animals, isn’t as fond of long city sieges and how does having a cleft palate in 1500 make him the man he becomes, or more, how do the reactions of people around us/trauma – in this case chased from their village with torches – make you the person you become.
So yes. Three time frames, five narrators, all brought together through repeated themes of environmental protection/sensitivity to animals, the risks and dangers of technology (whether that be the introduction of the first cannon or the threat of Google maps), the possibility of redemption through singular acts of sacrifice and, of course, through books and reading.
[Small detour to say this description might make the book sound daunting. And after my mum described it to me and I got it from the library it sat for a few days gathering dust (especially bad as it was a 7 day loan and 500 pages). We’d just learned we had the ‘vid, and could I really summon the energy to Read A Big Book That Sounded Very Complicated? Yes. You can. It is incredibly ‘readable,’ written for its movie adaptation but also to be churned through. Make it through the prologue and the first six pages and you’re set to finish it in… well, not seven days if you’re working full-time, homeschooling and sick, but you know, at least 14.]
Each chapter and within each part we brush up against the fictionalized Greek comedy Cloud Cuckoo Land in which our protagonist yearns to reach the impossible land in the sky, Cloud Cuckoo Land, where he will be transformed and finally free of suffering. On reaching the Land he discovers that while this blissful place contains all that could be known and promises no shortage of satisfactions, he would instead prefer to be on earth, just as it is. Or at least, maybe that’s the ending. The great scheme of the novel is to continually ask – because of the degradation of the text over time [but really because of metafiction] – whether this could be the ending, or whether instead he stays in Cloud Cuckoo Land and that we will never know, we must decide the ending for ourselves.
Even while Konstance, Zeno, Seymour, Anna and Omeir in their own ways all ultimately decide that it is this life, this earth that they will choose.
So why is this a book about feeling okay about the climate apocalypse? Well that part about deciding the ending for ourselves, about making individual choices about where we will compromise and how we will sacrifice. But its the thing about books that made me think Doerr was trying to be outlandishly hopeful. That in making the argument that some books survive he’s saying humanity is going to be okay. If books can survive all kinds of calamities and impossibilities (even the all-seeing-repository of the Argos didn’t hold it! but it was still recovered!) – that these stories arrive in our libraries and on our tablets is so improbable, so genuinely miraculous, that there must be a similar hope that 2000 years from now our books will find their way to whatever remains.
That humanity lives on in story is as staid a theme in literature as one can find, but still, here and in this particular now it brought this reader some kind of comfort.
And that’s where I’d return to this as a post-pandemic novel. It couldn’t have been set in March 2020 because the world it is trying to capture in February 2020 is one where climate can be centre, and where collective energies can also be imagined. One where we are not all So Sad and So Tired that we can’t imagine going to a children’s play staged in a small town library if only because it would mean putting on hard pants, but really because it would mean summoning the kind of belief that these tiny acts of optimism are worth applauding, and indeed, contributing to.
So while the hope is faint, the likelihood all but impossible, Doerr asks us to stay on this earth. To read, to sacrifice, to pet animals and to be kind.
It is not, I think, the worst book I have read about the end of humanity.