Cloud Cuckoo Land

These days we might all want to escape reality and live in a cloud cuckoo land. The phrase has been used in politics, poetry, and music, but Anthony Doerr cleverly channels its ancient Greek mythological origin to tie together a story spanning from Constantinople, to the Korean War, to present day, and finally, to a spaceship of the future where a few select citizens of Earth have escaped the apocalypse and are traveling to a better place, light years away.

The kernel of the story keeps reappearing as a favorite book of five intersecting characters across centuries. The book first appears as a crumbling codex in the legendary library of ancient Constantinople just before the city was captured and destroyed. Anna reads the story of Aethon to her sister. Once told by an ancient Greek as a bedtime tale and based on Aristophanes’ play, “The Birds,” a man wishing for a better life dreams of becoming a soaring bird, in order to reach the fabled paradise of cloud cuckoo land. He first turns into a donkey, then a fish, until finally getting his wings to land at the gates of his destination.

Before the city falls, Anna escapes with the book and meets Omeir, a village boy with his oxen who had been conscripted into the war to destroy Constantinople but is now heading home.

When the book started, I got lost and had to start again. The stories seemed unconnected as they jumped centuries, but the rhythm soon caught up with me, until it became a page-turner I couldn’t put down. The ingenious hook occurs early in a scene at a library, where children are enacting the mythical story about the donkey searching for redemption. Zeno, who learned Greek as a prisoner of war and is now an ardent library regular researching the old Greek tale, is directing children in a play about the search for cloud cuckoo land. Doerr later backtracks to fill in Zeno’s life as a young man, but here, at the beginning of the story, he is an old man in his eighties, about to confront a teenage terrorist with a gun and a bomb, intent on using the violent suggestions he learned from the internet to save the world from the encroaching development destroying the environment around him.

We learn Zeno’s fate through the young girl in the spaceship of the future. Konstance was born on the spaceship and only knows about Earth from her research, facilitated by Sybil, the computer driving the ship and in charge of the ship’s library. Seymour, the troubled teenager with the bomb in the library of 2020, developed the software for Sybil, and secretly placed a series of hidden clues in the code which leads the girl to her destination.

Despite knowing what will happen to Zeno, the intermittent returning to the library with children cowering in the stacks remains the tease – maybe it will turn out better, we hope, knowing it won’t. And, knowing the girl is on the spaceship in the future, looking for another planet, proves the Earth has already self-destructed, yet this doesn’t keep us from hoping otherwise – we are all in cloud cuckoo land, after all.

Like so many wise epithets included in Doerr’s story, the donkey turned bird is faced with a riddle to solve before being allowed entrance to the gates of paradise: “He that knows all the Learning ever writ, knows only this.” What is the only thing he knows? You might guess the answer – the more you know, the more you know you know nothing. And libraries are the places where you can find out.

Doerr connects all the lives in the ending, the book is returned to the library, and he neatly wraps up the donkey’s quest. Faced with the choice of staying in the paradise of cloud cuckoo land, since he has solved the riddle, he chooses instead to “eat the rose professed by the goddess and returns home.” The myth’s ending has two possibilities in the original Greek version but I prefer the one Doerr chose – no matter where you go, there’s no place like home.

Doerr is a master storyteller and in Cloud Cuckoo Land he reminds readers what a respite reading can offer. He manages to weave the stories of five very different characters together through the love of reading a good book.

All The Light We Cannot See

9781476746586_p0_v2_s260x420Anthony Doerr was answering questions on PBS Radio Hawaii when I first heard of his book – All the Light We Cannot See.  The lives of a blind French girl hiding in the countryside and a young Austrian orphan reluctantly turned into a Nazi soldier, seemed a diversion from the overused and tired World War II adventure, romance, espionage theme.  I repeated the title over and over as I drove, committing it to memory, hoping I would find the book.  I need not have worried. All the Light We Cannot See is on the New York Times bestseller list.

Doerr’s organization is a bit confusing, and I found myself rereading the first chapters and rechecking the dates before I could get into the rhythm of the story.  The timelines continue to jump around throughout the book, and, at times, following the narrative can get downright frustrating. Nevertheless, Doerr manages to instill suspense, and creates a refreshing and evocative perspective through the eyes of two teenagers forced into harrowing circumstances when the war changes their worlds.

The story begins with the two as they face the 1944 Allied bombing of Saint-Malo in Brittany. Marie-Laure, a blind teenager from Paris, is hiding in the attic of her great-uncle’s house. Werner, a white-haired, 16-year-old German soldier, is buried alive in a basement with the surviving members of his unit.  Doerr then immediately backtracks ten years to fill in their younger lives and the journey each took to get to the point of meeting each other.

Marie-Laure, whose father is the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History, loses her sight when she is six years old.  With the help and encouragement of her father, she reads classics in Braille (“Around the World in Eighty Days” and Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”), studies botany, and learns how to navigate the streets of Paris.  Werner, orphaned at a young age, lives in a coal mining town  with his younger sister.  After he repairs the radio of a Nazi official, Werner wins a scholarship to a school for Hitler Youth that saves him from mandatory service in the coal mines, but throws him into a moral dilemma as he fights for the German cause.

When the Nazis invade France, Marie-Laure flees from Paris with her father, who has been entrusted with the museum’s valuable gem – the Sea of Flames diamond.  The diamond carries a curse, protecting the holder but delivering misfortune to those around, and this tentative thread weaves through from the beginning of the story when Marie-Laure first hears about the legend on a school tour, to the end of the book, finally connecting all the characters.

Father and daughter wind up in Brittany with her agoraphobic great-uncle and his cook-housekeeper, a member of the Resistance.  Another thread, a radio broadcast from her uncle’s house carrying music and science lessons for children, reappears.  Werner and his sister have heard the broadcasts as children when Werner, using his talent, rewired a broken radio in the orphanage.  Marie-Laure’s grandfather initiated the signal in his Brittany mansion, and the old radio – still working years later – plays an important role in fighting the war against the Germans.

The story has Doerr’s insightful phrasing, playing through the thoughts of the two teenagers – some still resonate with me:

“He {Werner} thinks of the old broken miner he’s seen in Zollverein, sitting in chairs or on crates, not moving for hours, waiting to die. To men like that, time was a surfeit, a barrel they watched slowly drain.  When really, he thinks, it’s a glowing puddle you carry in your hands; you should spend all your energy protecting it.  Fighting for it.  Working so hard not to spill one single drop.”

“If only life were like a Jules Verne novel, thinks Marie-Laure, and you could page ahead when you most needed to, and learn what would happen.”

This is a war story, not a romance, and the tale goes on long after the war is over.  Not everyone survives, but Doerr neatly sews all the threads together, as he follows the characters’ lives twenty and thirty years later.  One mystery, however, he thankfully leaves open, and the story ends on a hopeful note.

Reading All the Light We Cannot See takes patience, but Doerr’s words and story are unforgettable.