This is a story about getting lost in translation.
“Lost in translation” is a modern way of saying we’ve miscommunicated, often unwittingly. We find ourselves lost in translation trying to express what we love and we are lost in translation when we don’t have the words to say what we wish.
In his novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr weaves together a story across time and space, all the while asking the question, “What happens when stories get lost in translation?” And so, across the 622 lyrical pages of Cloud Cuckoo Land, Doerr writes the stories of orphaned Anna, village boy Omeir born with a harelip, interstellar Konstance, veteran and octogenarian Zeno Nenis, and troubled Seymour. Through their stories, Doerr explores the power and potential of legacy. The legacy of legends and what, through story and translation, can become legend itself.
Each character in the novel has a story studded with loss. Anna and Omeir’s loss of a home and family triggers a journey towards each other. While the journey is shrouded in mystery, it is narrated through omniscient perspective in the third person, whetting readers’ curiosity and perpetuating their investment in Anna and Omeir. On the opposing end of time, Konstance’s loss of the rest of humanity enables her to find answers that hold more hope than she was raised to believe possible. As she stumbles to find answers, readers grow anxious for Konstance to solve puzzles found within the books of her library. Zeno and Seymour’s loss of security, their lack of place in society forces them to find new ways to grapple with life. As they write letters and translate ancient texts these articulations of their heart pull at the readers’ too.
To get lost in translation for these characters is to gain a story that helps them find their way back—back to each other, to humanity, to life. Having a story with dual threads of loss and rediscovery enables each reader to personally resonate with what the novel covers.
How does the myth of “Cloud Cuckoo Land”—written in Greek centuries ago, according to each folio slipped into the novel—come into this alternating web of stories covering what is lost and found? “Cloud Cuckoo Land” takes on a duality of self. It is both a made-up myth and a real, published fiction, both a story and a place. As the ancient myth is uncovered by the characters during the Fall of Constantinople, World War II, present day, and the stars, it moves from its form as a story to a new form of place. Suddenly, the Land Antonius Diogenes described so many centuries ago takes on a reality that Anna, Zeno, and Omeir hold onto with a veracity that probably would have surprised the author himself.
Not only does Doerr’s novel become an answer to what happens when stories are lost in translation, it also serves to show that stories are where people find solace and healing. His characters read stories and they have their stories written, culminating in a cast full of intense uniqueness grounded in relatability for the outside reader.
For Anna, the opportunity to read waterlogged, tattered remains of the myth becomes a way for her to care for her sister. Zeno and Rex fall in love, bonding in a war camp because of an ancient myth that has no place in forced labor yet helps the two men stay grounded.
Seymour is a teenage boy with autism, struggling in his inability to drown out sounds or avoid being consumed by single issues. Doerr describes Seymour’s struggle in real time—the wind rushing, owls hooting, or children crying in his ears escalates to a suffocating cacophony. It paralyzes Seymour. Or, it pushes him to self-justified violence. The intimacy of characters like Seymour in Cloud Cuckoo Land is delivered through Doerr’s keen focus into a particular tick or fascination that motivates the character. Such duality serves as a reminder of how important a person’s humanity is.
Zeno’s love of translating the ancient Cloud Cuckoo myth turns an ordinary thing—reading stories because they are good—into a beautiful gift Zeno can own wholeheartedly as his own. “Sometimes the things we think are lost are only hidden, waiting to be rediscovered,” his friend Rex reminds him, ultimately pushing Zeno to continue translating stories.
In the future, on a starship, is Konstance. With her is artificial intelligence, Sybil. As time passes, Konstances arrives at a bold conclusion: “There are things that Sybild doesn’t know. Sybil doesn’t know what it meant to be held by your father inside the leafy green twilight of Farm 4, or how it felt to sift through your mother’s button bag and wonder about the provenance of each button.” Konstance’s story, woven with Sybil’s, becomes an investigation into the enduring importance of human emotion and personal memory.
Each section of Doerr’s newest novel is scored with intentionality. As readers go through Cloud Cuckoo Land with Anna and Konstance they pass through time too, beginning with Anna in 1439 AD and ending with Konstance during Mission Year 65. The years all the way down to the specific date hint at how the specificity of time affects the events within each moment. Between these years are folios— a series of pages interspersed throughout the book—of “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” the myth that gives the novel its title. These folios provide tastes of the story across hundreds of pages, serving as minor prologues to subsequent chapters.
“I said, ‘Why do the others [seem?] content to fly about, singing and eating day after day, bathed by the warm zephyrs, soaring round the towers, yet inside me this [sickness?]’…
‘Well,’ he said, ‘here’s an idea, to rid yourself of this [restless mortal affliction?], travel to the palace at [the center?]…Inside you just might find what you…’”
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Antonius Diogenes, Folio T.
Here, Folio T foreshadows the ways each character journeys to a “palace at the center”: a palace that, in their timeline, is a physical place of safety or comfort, and also a narrated place of myth. The ellipsis leaves room for the reader to fill in what they need to find.
Doerr’s story is rich with overlay, moving in and out of time, place, and myth. His chapters brush the stars, touch the forests, and reach a woodcutters’ village in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria, Constantinople, Korea and Lakeport, Idaho. Approaching his novel, a natural reaction might be concern: how does a reader—or even Doerr himself—avoid getting lost and mixed up in the slips of the story?
The answer is found in Doerr’s brilliance as a story architect. Chapters are headed with time, place, date, and character name in a way that, rather than betray what is to come, heralds the event in a temporal fashion. Through the timeline emerges a story that, lost to translation, only becomes readable as Konstance solves humanity’s mystery encoded before her and Anna learns to read. Cloud Cuckoo Land holds a promise to its readers—“‘Read from the book all you wish…but if you read to the end you will become like us, free of desire…never will you be able to return to your prior form. Go on, child,’ said the flickering goddess. ‘Decide…’” To read Anthony Doerr’s newest novel is to discover new forms of story, over and over within its pages of mystery, history, and humanity.
ANTHONY DOERR was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. He is the author of the story collections The Shell Collector and Memory Wall, the memoir Four Seasons in Rome, and the novels About Grace, All the Light We Cannot See, which was awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and Cloud Cuckoo Land, which was a finalist for the 2021 National Book Award and Novel of the Year in the British Book Awards.
Cloud Cuckoo Land can be purchased here.