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       The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.1

           Walter Moers
The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books



  About the Book

  About the Author

  Also by Walter Moers

  Title Page

  Once Upon a Time

  A Surprise

  Return to Lindworm Castle

  The Bloody Book

  The New City

  Noting Without Notes

  All in Gothic


  Biblio-this, biblio-that

  Book Wine from Bookholm

  A Reunion with Kibitzer

  Ugglian Mourning

  Dried Laurel Leaves

  The Magmass

  The Theatre of Dreaming Puppets

  Several Doubles

  A Dream Within a Dream

  The King of the Shadows

  Puppetism for Beginners

  Maestro Corodiak

  Puppetism for Advanced Students

  A Biblionaut in Three Acts

  Puppetism of Absolute Perfection

  Corodiak’s Web

  Family Ties

  The Invisible Theatre

  The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books

  Translator’s Postscript


  About the Book

  Over two hundred years ago Bookholm, the City of Dreaming Books, was destroyed by a catastrophic firestorm. Optimus Yarnspinner, who witnessed this disaster, has since become Zamonia’s greatest writer and is resting on his laurels at Lindworm Castle. Spoilt by his monumental success and basking in adulation, he one day receives a disturbing message that finally reinvests his life with meaning: a cryptic missive that lures him back to Bookholm.

  Rebuilt on a magnificent scale, the city is once more a vibrant literary metropolis and Mecca of the book trade teeming with book fanatics of all kinds. On the track of the mysterious letter that brought him there, Yarnspinner has scarcely set foot in the city before he falls prey to its spirit of adventure. He is reunited with old friends like Inazia Anazazi the Uggly and Ahmed ben Kibitzer the Nocturnomath, but he also encounters the city’s new marvels, which include the mysterious Biblionauts, the warring Puppetists, and the city’s latest craze, the Invisible Theatre.

  Yarnspinner strays ever deeper into the Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, which seems to wield a strange power over Bookholm’s destinies. He is eventually drawn into an irresistible maelstrom of events far more sensational than any of the adventures he has previously embarked upon.

  About the Author

  Walter Moers was born in 1957 and is a writer, cartoonist, painter and sculptor. He is the creator of the comic strips The Little Asshole and Adolf and his novels include of the cult bestseller The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear, The City of Dreaming Books and The Alchemaster’s Apprentice. He lives in Hamburg.


  The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear

  A Wild Ride through the Night


  The City of Dreaming Books

  The Alchemaster’s Apprentice

  Once Upon a Time

  THE DARKMAN ONCE in olden days

  did set fair Bookholm town ablaze.

  The crackling flames to heaven rose

  unquenchable by any hose.

  Book after book to fire fell prey

  until the town in ruins lay.

  And yet, as year succeeded year,

  Bookholm began to reappear.

  Bookholmian Nursery Rhyme

  A Surprise

  HERE THE STORY continues. It tells how I returned to Bookholm and descended for a second time into the catacombs beneath the City of Dreaming Books. It tells of old friends and new enemies, new comrades-in-arms and old adversaries. But above all, incredible as it may sound, it tells of the Shadow King.

  And of books. Books of the most diverse kinds: good and bad, live and dead, dreaming and awake, worthless and precious, harmless and dangerous. Books, too, whose hidden contents cannot even be guessed at. Books which, when you read them, can spring a surprise on you at any moment – especially when you’re least expecting it.

  Books like the one you are holding in your hands right now, gentle reader. For I must, alas, inform you that this is a toxic book. Its poison began to penetrate your fingertips the instant you opened it – tiny, microscopically small particles of venom compared to which the pores in your skin are as big as barn doors that permit unrestricted access to your bloodstream. Already on their way into your arteries, these harbingers of death are heading straight for your heart.

  Listen to yourself! Do you hear your accelerated heartbeat? Do you feel your fingers tingling slightly? Do you detect the chill creeping slowly up the veins in your arms? The tightening of your chest? The breathlessness? No? Not yet? Be patient, it will soon begin. Very soon.

  What will this poison do to you when it reaches your heart? To be blunt, it will kill you – end your life here and now. The merciless toxin will paralyse your cardiac valves and check the flow of your blood once and for all. The medical term for this is infarction, but I find cardiac buffoonery more amusing. You will, perhaps, have time to clutch your chest in a histrionic manner and utter a bewildered cry before collapsing, but that’s all. Please don’t take this personally, though. You aren’t the carefully selected victim of a conspiracy. No, your murder by poisoning fulfils no purpose; it’s just as pointless as your imminent death. There’s no motive, either. You simply picked up the wrong book. Fate, chance, bad luck – call it what you will. You’re going to die, that’s all, so resign yourself!

  Unless …

  Yes, there’s still a chance – if you follow my instructions without hesitation. This poison is a very rare contact poison whose effect is lethal only if a certain amount of it is absorbed. It all depends on how long you hold the book in your hands. The dose has been so precisely calculated that it will kill you only if you read on to the next paragraph! So lay this book aside at once if you consider it important to go on living! You’ll experience an accelerated heartbeat for only a while. Cold sweat will break out on your brow, your slight feeling of faintness will soon subside and then you can continue your barren, miserable existence for as many hours as fate still has in store for you. Goodbye for ever!

  Well, my courageous friends, we’re on our own at last, for my blood is flowing in the veins of all whose hands are still holding this book. I, Optimus Yarnspinner, your true friend and companion, bid you welcome!

  Yes, it was just a bluff. This book isn’t poisonous, of course. If I really want to kill my readers, I bore them to death with 260,000 pages of interminable dialogue about double-entry bookkeeping, as I did in my series of novels entitled The House of the Norselanders. I find that a subtler method.

  First, however, I must sort the chaff from the wheat. Why? Because we can’t afford to take any ballast – any milksop readers who would tremble and lay the book aside at the very mention of danger – to the place we are bound for.

  You’ve already guessed it, haven’t you, my intrepid brothers and sisters in spirit? Yes, it’s true, we’re going back to Bookholm. What’s that, you say? The City of Dreaming Books was burnt to the ground? Yes, it was indeed. It was devastated long ago by a pitiless inferno – of that, no one is more painfully aware than I. For I was there at the time. I saw with my own eyes how Homuncolossus, the Shadow King, set fire to himself and ignited the biggest conflagration Bookholm has ever undergone. I saw him descend into the catacombs like a living torch, there to unleash a firestorm that not only burnt down the buildings on the surface but ate deep into the bowels of the city. I heard the tocsins ring and saw the Dreaming Books reduced to sparks that danced among the stars. That was two hundred years ago.

  Bookholm has been rebuilt since then. Mor
e splendidly than before, so it’s said, and furnished with even richer antiquarian treasures. These are reputed to have come from areas of the cata combs inaccessible until the fire opened them up. The city is now a vibrant metropolis dedicated to Zamonian booklore, a magnetically attractive place of pilgrimage frequented by literati, publishers and printers, and one compared to which the old Bookholm would seem like a second-rate, second-hand bookshop compared to a national library. Nowadays, as if it were a completely different place, the inhabitants self-confidently refer to the city as ‘Greater Bookholm’. How many fanatical bibliophiles would not be tempted to see for themselves the true grandeur and splendour of the new City of Dreaming Books that has arisen from the ashes?

  But I myself am motivated by something considerably more compelling than mere touristic or bibliophilic curiosity. And you, my inquisitive and dauntless friends, would like to know what that is, wouldn’t you? Rightly so, for from now on we shall be sharing everything: joys and sorrows, perils and secrets, adventures and vicissitudes. We’re an exclusive band of brothers and sisters, you and I. Very well, I’ll tell you my reason, but I’d better admit right away that what sent me off on my life’s greatest adventure was nothing particularly original: merely a mysterious letter. Yes, just like before, on my first trip to Bookholm, it was a handwritten missive that started the ball rolling.

  Return to Lindworm Castle

  YOU’RE WELCOME TO pronounce me a megalomaniac for claiming that, at the time this story began, I had already become Zamonia’s greatest writer. What else can one call an author whose books were being trundled into bookshops by the cartload? Who was the youngest Zamonian artist ever to have been awarded the Order of the Golden Quill? Who had had a fire-gilt cast-iron statue of himself erected outside the Grailsundian Academy of Zamonian Literature?

  There was a street named after me in every sizeable Zamonian town. There were bookshops that stocked my works exclusively – plus all the reference books devoted to them. My fans had founded associations whose members addressed one another by the names of characters in my novels. ‘Doing a Yarnspinner’ was a vernacular expression for triumphing in some artistic discipline. I couldn’t walk down a busy street without attracting a crowd, enter a bookshop without causing female members of the staff to swoon, or write a book that wasn’t promptly declared a classic.

  In short, I had become a conceited popinjay pampered with literary prizes and public esteem. One who had lost all capacity for self-criticism and almost all his natural artistic instincts – one who quoted only himself and copied his own works without realising it. Like an insidious mental disease of which the patient himself is unaware, success had overtaken and infected me completely. I was so busy wallowing in my own fame, I didn’t even notice that the Orm had long since ceased to suffuse me.

  Did I write anything of importance during this period? I don’t know when I could have done so. I wasted most of my time reading from my own works in a self-infatuated sing-song, whether in bookshops and theatres or at literary seminars, after which I would get drunk on applause, condescendingly chat with admirers and sign copies of my books for hours. Alas, my faithful friends, what I then considered the zenith of my career was really its absolute nadir. Long gone were the days when I could anonymously roam a town and undertake research without being pestered. I was instantly surrounded by crowds of admirers begging for autographs, professional advice, or simply my blessing. Even on country roads I was dogged by hordes of fanatical readers eager to be there when the Orm overcame me. This happened more and more rarely at first and then not at all – and I didn’t even notice because, to be honest, I could hardly distinguish between the Orm’s trancelike state and a wine-induced stupor.

  It was to escape my monstrous accretion of popularity, my bizarre success and my demented admirers, that I decided, after many years of restless wandering and sundry adventures, to return for a while to Lindworm Castle and rest on my laurels there. I moved back into the small house bequeathed me by my godfather, Dancelot Wordwright. I did this also – let us look the facts in the face, dear friends – in order to pretend to the public and my peers at the castle that I was returning to my roots. ‘At the zenith of his career, the prodigal son returns home to augment his titanic oeuvre, humbly and unpretentiously, in the cramped little cottage that had once belonged to his beloved godfather.’

  Nothing could have been further from the truth. At this period, no one in the whole of Zamonia was less root-bound than I, and no one led a more decadent, aimless existence without a care for his cultural mission and artistic discipline. Lindworm Castle was quite simply the only place that offered me perfect protection from my own popularity. Lindworms were still the sole life form permitted to dwell there. Only there could I be an artist among artists, and only Lindworms observed the perfect etiquette that guaranteed each individual his privacy. Solitude was accounted a precious commodity at Lindworm Castle. All were so busy with their own literary work that no one noticed how inexcusably I neglected mine.

  All that worried me, apart from the usual attacks of hypochondria, was my weight. Thanks to a leisurely lifestyle, chronic lack of exercise and hearty Lindworm fare, I had soon put on several pounds around the hips. This sometimes depressed me, but never so much that my spirits couldn’t be restored by a few jam omelettes or a haunch of roast Marsh Hog. I might perhaps have ended as Lindworm Castle’s fattest and loneliest writer had I not been jolted out of my lethargy by a mysterious letter.

  It was on an otherwise unexceptional summer morning that my life received this jolt. As on any other day, I was sitting over an inordinately protracted breakfast in the little kitchen of my inherited house, engaged in my customary hours-long perusal of the latest fan mail, munching chocolate-encased coffee beans and a dozen croissants filled with apricot purée. Now and again I would reach into one of the mailbags delivered every few days by the sullen postman, take out a letter, open it and impatiently scan it for the most flattering passages. I was faintly disappointed as a rule, because I always imagined such letters would be a trifle more laudatory than they already were. And so, while reading them, I would mentally replace their ‘excellents’ with ‘historic’ or ‘sublime’ or ‘unsurpassable’, then clasp them to my bosom and, with a sigh, toss them into the fire. Although I burnt my fan mail with a heavy heart, its sheer bulk would soon have driven me from house and home had I not disposed of it at regular intervals. Thus the ashes of Yarnspinner panegyrics belched from my chimney all morning, enriching Lindworm Castle’s air with the perfume of my success. After breakfast I often devoted an hour or so to my new amateur hobby, playing the Clavichorgan.1 I had recently taken to tinkling my own modest renditions of works by Evubeth van Goldwine, Crederif Pincho, Odion la Vivanti and other great exponents of Zamonian music. That, however, was the full extent of artistic activity in my normal daily round.

  One brief moment, sometimes no longer than the bat of an eyelash, can often determine one’s destiny. In my case it was the time required to read a sentence of eight syllables. My claws plucked an envelope at random from the bulging mailbag while my other paw dunked a croissant in hot chocolate and whipped cream. Ah, little letter, I thought, you’ll hold no surprises for me either! I know precisely what you contain. What’s the betting? An ardent declaration of love for my poetry or a servile obeisance to my audacious prose style? An enthusiastic encomium on one of my stage plays or a genuflection to the Yarnspinner oeuvre as a whole. Yes, yes … On the one hand, this never-ending torrent of adulation bored me stiff; on the other, I’d become addicted to it, perhaps as a substitute for the Orm that had deserted me for so long.

  I effortlessly succeeded in tearing open the envelope with my left-hand claws, removing the letter and unfolding it while simultaneously dunking another croissant in hot chocolate, for I had often tried this. Submitting the letter to my blasé gaze, I unhinged my lower jaw and tossed the croissant into my mouth without raising my elbow from the table. This I did with the intention of reading
the first few flattering lines of my admirer’s missive and simultaneously gorging myself on delicious flaky pastry. That’s how low I had sunk!

  ‘This’, I read as the croissant disappeared between my jaws, ‘is where the story begins.’

  I suppose I must have stopped swallowing at the same time as I gasped in surprise. The only certainty is that the croissant had not been sufficiently moistened, so it lodged in my gullet. The latter tightened convulsively, squeezing the hot chocolate and cream out of the pastry and pumping them upwards. My windpipe became so flooded with them, I made noises like a frog being strangled underwater. Crumpling up the letter in one paw, I waved the other futilely in the air.

  Unable either to swallow or to breathe, I abruptly leapt to my feet in the hope that an erect posture would remedy the situation. It didn’t, though. I merely gargled with cream.

  ‘Aaarghle,’ I went.

  The blood shot into my head and my eyes bulged from their sockets. I dashed to the open window in the vain expectation of getting more air there, but I only succeeded in making more gurgling noises as I leant out. Two Lindworms who were just then strolling down the street glanced over at me.

  ‘Aaargh!’ I went, waving frantically and staring at them with bulging, bloodshot eyes. They must have assumed that this was a jocular form of salutation, because they reciprocated it by imitating my gurgling noises.

  ‘Aaargh!’ they called gaily, opening their eyes wide and waving back. ‘And a very good aaargh to you, Master Optimus!’

  And then they laughed.

  I had become such a darling of the gods that my fellow Lindworms had taken to imitating my quirks for fear of missing out on some up-to-the-minute trend I was in the process of setting. Gurgling and laughing, they walked off down the street without paying me any further heed. The new Yarnspinnerish greeting would be bound to catch on.

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