Cloud Cuckoo Land is a much celebrated novel by Anthony Doerr, who won a Pulitzer for his previous book All the Light we Cannot See. And it has a lot to tell us about the joy of enough.
On the face of it, Cloud Cuckoo Land is about a book – a lost Greek novel about a shepherd who seeks a mystical land of eternal plenty – the land of the title. Fragments of this lost book form the backbone of the novel, with the stories of five other characters shaped around it.
They vary greatly. Anna is in Constantinople in 1439, the city under threat of an invading army with formidable new weapons. Omeir is her contemporary, and a disfigured outcast. Zeno is drafted into the Korean war, where he struggles with his identity in a prisoner of war camp. Seymour is a troubled child with autism, whose actions later in life will profoundly impact others in the story. And finally, Konstance, who is on a spaceship sent out in hope from a dying earth. Each of these characters encounters the lost Greek novel in some way, learning from it, protecting it, passing it on.
All five of the characters’ stories are riveting on their own, each one sensitively handled. And there is magic in the way Doerr winds them together, all the pieces slotting in as the book concludes.
For lovers of books and libraries, there is much to enjoy. There are also recurring themes of consumerism, greed and enough. One character witnesses the destruction of war, both at the wider scale of cleared landscapes, and the micro scale as he loses animals that are precious to him – the sacrifices demanded by the powerful. Another is changed forever by the developers who fell the forest that is his childhood refuge, building homes over it and breaking his connection with the local wildlife. Konstance, in a spaceship she was born in and will die in, is the inheritor of an exhausted earth, one she can only visit in the Google Earth-like simulator in the ship’s library.
And then there is Aethon, the Greek shepherd, who loses himself so profoundly in his quest for a life of ease and plenty.
“What you already have is better than what you so desperately seek”, writes Doerr at one point, which feels like a prophetic statement to a culture that is always running, always craving – and at the same time, always undermining the wealth it has already accumulated, through inequality and environmental decline.
Though it never explicitly names these sorts of concerns, I found Cloud Cuckoo Land to be deeply resonant with my own work, with Joy in Enough, or with my book The Economics of Arrival. Without shunning technology or progress, Doerr calls our attention to what makes life worthwhile – care, absorbing work, shared passions, the joy of learning and discovery. And the invitation back towards “the green beauty of the broken world”.