The labyrinth of dreamin.., p.10
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       The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.10

           Walter Moers
 

  ‘You’d have thought they could propagate their pathological ideology more plausibly anywhere other than Bookholm, where it’s constantly reduced to absurdity by the visible presence of so many books, but far from it, my friend! It only spurs them on. Bookholm has the highest concentration of Bibliots anywhere in Zamonia. Imagine that! There’s a fanatical, wild-eyed, loud-mouthed Bibliot on every other street corner in the city, indefatigably denying the existence of the millions of books around him. And it’s all at the expense of the honest taxpayer. Why? Because those morons are so busy preaching their idiotic, misguided doctrine, they don’t have the time to do a respectable job. Oh no! At night they queue up outside the free soup kitchens and clog the hostels for the homeless. Toleration has its limits, my friend!’

  Ovidios was visibly infuriated. I found it both amusing and gratifying that a Lindworm who had once occupied the lowest rung on the Bookholm ladder should now conceive of himself as an honest taxpayer defending the rights of the homeless. To calm him down a little I pointed at random to another smoker. ‘What about him over there?’ I asked. ‘What sort of Biblio is he?’

  ‘Eh?’ said Ovidios, following the direction of my paw. He subsided only reluctantly. ‘Him? Erm … He’s a Biblioklept.’

  I peered more closely for the first time. A little old gnome with brown, leathery skin, the Biblioklept was defiantly smoking a gnarled pipe carved from a root and emitting clouds of greenish smoke. It made me cough just to look at him.

  ‘Biblioklepts evolved from common book thieves and ultimately did away with themselves, so to speak.’ Ovidios laughed. ‘It’s an interesting chapter in Bookholm’s legal history – Bibliojuristics, in other words. It happened like this. When book thieves were caught, some of them tried to justify their theft by pleading a pathological compulsion. They even made that stick – if they had a good lawyer. They were quickly released or given extremely lenient sentences by judges who had probably sat their law exams at Crook University. That opened the door wide to book theft, because nearly every defendant charged with shoplifting books pleaded diminished responsibility and cited precedents. I’m sure you can imagine what that meant for a city like Bookholm. The authorities had to think of something quickly.’

  ‘They changed the law?’ I hazarded.

  ‘Exactly. Someone hit on the simple idea of forbidding Biblioklepts to enter the city. It was as simple as that. Since then, every entrance to Bookholm has had a sign hanging above it. The gist of it is: “Travellers suffering from a pathological addiction to book theft (Biblioklepsia) are prohibited from entering Bookholm and advised to turn back at once. In the event that they infringe this ordinance and steal a book or books, they will be subject to draconian punishment, not only for their theft, but for contravening this prohibition. Turn back, Biblioklept, while you still can.” Or words to that effect. Understand?’

  I nodded. I had seen such a sign on entering the city.

  ‘A Biblioklept isn’t all that easy to recognise, of course, but anyone charged with stealing books and stupid enough to try to blame the theft on Biblioklepsia is punished twice over – for theft and for entering the city illegally. The result has been a dramatic decline in Biblioklepsia, but that doesn’t mean there are no Biblioklepts left in Bookholm. They’ve simply become ordinary book thieves.’

  Ovidios smiled.

  ‘Just a minute,’ I said. ‘That old man looks completely harmless, surely? He doesn’t even have a book with him. How do you know he steals them?’

  ‘Because I’ve spotted him at it on three occasions,’ Ovidios replied.

  ‘Oh, I see,’ I said. Then something occurred to me. ‘But … how could you tell he was just a normal shoplifter, not a compulsive book thief?’

  Ovidios’s smile grew even broader. ‘Because he was stealing books written by you!’ he said. ‘They’re published in such huge editions, they’re worth almost nothing on the black market. No professional thief would steal that sort of thing. Only a Biblioklept would.’

  Touché! That elegant sideswipe at my reputation as a prolific commercial author hit home. Only a Lindworm could have insulted me so charmingly.

  The door opened and two Wolpertings came in. One of them I recognised as the one who had shown me the way to the Fumoir. Their manner was ostentatiously inconspicuous, as if they were loath to attract attention but at pains to ensure that everyone was aware of their presence.

  ‘Bibliofficers,’ Ovidios hissed between his teeth in an unmistakably contemptuous undertone. Conversation at the tables didn’t cease but became more subdued. It was as if a teacher had entered a noisy classroom.

  ‘Are the Wolpertings Bookholm’s new police force?’ I asked.

  ‘No, peace and good order are still maintained by the municipal constabulary. The Bibliofficers are exclusively responsible for fire. They’re a preventive fire brigade, so to speak.’ The Wolperting with a face like a bulldog gave me a friendly nod as he and his companion passed our table.

  ‘They seem respectable enough to me,’ I said when they had gone past. ‘They do make a rather intimidating impression, but—’

  ‘Oh, one can’t really say a word against them,’ Ovidios growled. ‘Minor outbreaks of fire have drastically decreased in number since they’ve been responsible for safety. They set up the Fumoirs and installed hydrants everywhere. Nothing wrong with that, but even safety has its price. They manage to give me a bad conscience whenever they show up. You feel you’re a dangerous pyromaniac when they look you in the eye. They’re like walking admonitory forefingers, if you ask me.’

  ‘Who pays them?’

  ‘We all do. From taxes. That’s another consequence of Bookholm’s new-found prosperity. The local authorities have a problem envied by every other municipality in Zamonia: we’ve got too much money. That’s how we can afford a luxury like our own fire police.’

  The Bibliofficers left the Fumoir after their brief tour just as ostentatiously and inconspicuously as they had come. I thought I heard a collective sigh of relief when the door closed behind them. Conversation and laughter promptly recommenced at full volume.

  ‘We’re turning into a Bibliocracy,’ said Ovidios. ‘See those three Norselanders over there, the ones smoking long cigarettes?’

  I nodded.

  ‘Only Bibliocrats can afford to take such long cigarette breaks,’ he growled. ‘But what’s the alternative? A Biblionistic city needs administrators. I strongly advise you never to cross swords with those pen-pushers – by failing to pay a library fine, for instance. They’re even more cold-blooded and vindictive than the old-time Bookhunters. There’s nothing worse than getting mixed up in the toils of the Bibliocracy.’

  I was gradually acquiring a better grasp of prevailing conditions, my friends. The old-time Bookholm I’d known had been a medieval city in which most things were left to chance. That was how Bookemism had been able to flourish in such poisonous profusion. That was how professional murderers like the Bookhunters had been able to go about their criminal business in the streets undisturbed. That, too, was how someone like Pfistomel Smyke had almost succeeded in gaining absolute power. For in those days sheer anarchy had reigned in Bookholm. In hindsight, that state of affairs may sound exciting and adventurous, but it was unsustainable in the long run. Biblionism had turned Bookholm into a modern city, with all the advantages and disadvantages that entailed. Everything – from culture to daily life and commerce – was based on books, but in a more open and rational way, not in the secretive fashion dear to Bookemists and upmarket second-hand booksellers. This was a trifle disenchanting, sadly, but you could now walk down dark alleyways without having to fear that some Bookhunter would chop off your paws and sell them on the black market as literary memorabilia from Lindworm Castle. From my own point of view, dear friends, that was a definite sign of progress!

  My eye had been caught by two Druids seated at a nearby table. They were poring over an open blueprint, jabbing it with compasses and arguing fiercely. I caught ex
otic terms such as joist elasticity, substructive statics and procedural triangulation. What really fascinated me, however, was that they both wore similar hats composed of printed and skilfully folded paper that made them look sensationally ridiculous. I just managed to suppress a grin. Ovidios noticed my inquisitive glances and protruding eyes.

  ‘Those are Bibliotects,’ he explained. ‘There are Bibliotects and architects in Bookholm, but there are marked differences between the two. Architects build houses such as you can see in any other city, whereas Bibliotects have subordinated their profession to Biblionism. Their buildings are distinguished by elaborate book ornamentation, for example, or they use fossilised books as building materials. Their roofs often resemble open books upside down and their symmetrical proportions are sometimes based on poetic metre. There’s a law in Bookholm that twenty per cent of all new houses must be built in accordance with the rules of Bibliotecture. The silly hats are part of their guild uniform. They consist of pages from second-hand books on architecture. The Bibliotects may know a lot about statics, but they don’t have a clue about fashion.’

  ‘Sounds sensible, that law,’ I put in. ‘There are enough buildings constructed of ordinary brick. I took to those book buildings on sight.’

  ‘You’re right, it was a good law. Petrified books make a handsome building material. Vast quantities of them were discovered in the upper catacombs after the fire, though their origin is still a mystery. They’re inexpensive too, being local, but one can also overdo all this goddamned bookery! Imagine you’re a professional bookseller or bookbinder. Would you really like to come home after work to a house built of fossilised books with a roof that looks like an open volume of poetry? I wouldn’t. I like looking at Bibliotect-designed houses but I wouldn’t care to live in one. We can count ourselves lucky that our city isn’t based on the butcher’s trade, say. The Tourist Board would probably insist on our living in houses built of petrified cutlets. Think of it: The City of Dreaming Sausages!’

  The Fumoir was gradually emptying. Pipes were being knocked out, smoking utensils stowed away, people leaving. The various scents had condensed into a vaporous broth that was only very slowly flowing up the chimney and out into the open air.

  ‘Pay attention,’ cried Ovidios. ‘We’ll play a game to make it a bit more difficult for me. I won’t single people out, you will. That’s so you won’t think I only pick the easy ones.’

  ‘All right,’ I said and looked around. My curiosity was aroused by a trio of youngsters dressed in black, who were sitting two tables away. ‘Them. The ones in black gear. What sort of Biblios are they?’

  Ovidios’s face suddenly assumed a melancholy expression I couldn’t at first interpret.

  ‘Them? That’s easy.’ He sighed. ‘They’re Biblionecromancers, all three of them.’

  They were young Demidwarfs from Ironville. One could easily tell that from their rust-coloured hair and pale-grey complexions, but these three were more than usually pale. Their clothing, which was black from headgear to shoes, seemed to suggest that they’d just come from a funeral. They were listlessly passing a tiny pipe from hand to hand and puffing at it in turn.

  ‘They look unhealthy somehow,’ I said. ‘Are they ill?’

  ‘No, appearances are deceptive. “Never judge a book by its cover” – you know the old saying? Most Bibilionecromancers, or Necros, as they’re also called for simplicity’s sake, are remarkably fit, believe me.’ Ovidios heaved a sigh. ‘The pale complexion and the rings round the eyes are largely make-up. Most of them take great care of their health. Many are vegetarians.’

  One of them, as I myself could see from a distance, was reading aloud to the others from a book of short stories by Perla la Gadeon.

  ‘Their style of dress mightn’t appeal to some,’ I remarked, ‘but their taste in literature is beyond reproach. They’re reading La Gadeon.’

  ‘Once again, my friend, I’d beware of jumping to conclusions. La Gadeon is certainly one of the Necros’ favourite authors, but not so much because of his literary qualities, more on account of his stories’ morbid and other-worldly orientation. And of his personality. In that respect, Perla la Gadeon can undoubtedly be regarded as the progenitor of the Biblionecromancers. They also read a lot of trash, though, take it from me. The Necros’ preferred reading must deal with the Undead, the half-dead and, of course, the dead, or they won’t so much as touch a book. A kidney clinic full of incurable invalids and situated beside a graveyard in an unhealthy mangrove swamp – that would make an ideal setting. The absence of athletic, well-tanned principal characters in bright, colourful clothes would also be an asset. And if the patients are attacked by a horde of bloodthirsty Moorwood Vampires or a brain-devouring fog from another dimension – preferably both at once – you can assume that the book will prove a bestseller with the Necros. But only, of course, if the jacket bears an illustration of a tattoo in the form of a secret Bookemistic symbol, still oozing blood.’

  ‘You certainly know your stuff,’ I said.

  Ovidios sighed yet again, this time particularly heavily.

  ‘Hardly surprising. Both my children are Necros. They hold a Black Mass in our cellar every other Wednesday.’

  ‘You’re married?’ I said, startled. The loquacious reptile was full of surprises.

  ‘Why not? Female Lindworms also leave the castle and travel afar, my friend. My wife is Cecilia Dactyl, a third cousin. She came to Bookholm shortly after the fire. You must know her.’

  ‘Cecilia? Of course. She used to water my godfather’s vegetable garden when he was away on lecture tours.’ Heavens, what a small place Zamonia was! I now understood Ovidios’s intimate knowledge of Biblionecrophily. He had two of these walking cadavers living at home with him! That figured, somehow. I couldn’t help grinning at the thought of teenage necrophilic Lindworms.

  He made a dismissive gesture. ‘It’s not so bad. What annoys me is not the artificial blood in the bathtub or the splashes of black wax on the carpet that never come out. No, it’s the eternal nagging about my eating habits. They want to convert me to vegetarianism and wean me off smoking, the little philistines! Why do you think I have to smoke my pipe in a Fumoir although I own a nice house in the best district in Bookholm?’

  ‘They hold Black Masses?’ I put in smugly.

  ‘Not really. Biblionecromancy isn’t a religion, more the opposite. They’ve got a morbid relationship with books, that’s all. No book can be old and fragile enough for them.’

  ‘Many people think the same. Antiquarian booksellers, for instance.’

  ‘Yes, but they’re interested in a book’s monetary value. The older, the more valuable. To Necros, antiquarian status is completely immaterial. On the contrary, they prefer books that were utter flops – ones that never got beyond a first edition. Dormant stock, unsuccessful debut novels brought out by small, specialist publishers and written by utterly unrecognised authors who not only never wrote another line thereafter but, if possible, committed suicide soon after publication for lack of sales. The sort of books that are found behind an empty bookcase in a bankrupt bookshop. Titles like Journal of a Bubonic Plague or The Attractions of Piecework. Or Bulimic Odes. Books that no one will ever read apart from the author. That’s the ideal stuff for a Necros’ ritual.’

  ‘So they do hold Black Masses!’ I whispered. These Necros were beginning to interest me.

  ‘Not really, as I said. I’d prefer to call them lugubrious wakes. The Necros love literary corpses. After acquiring the mildewed volumes they lay them out at home in a darkened room, the way people do for a few days when paying their last respects to the dear departed. The coffins, which they make themselves, are naturally far smaller. They light joss-sticks and play the Horrophone. They even deliver funeral orations.’

  ‘And then they attack the neighbours and drink their blood?’ I persisted.

  ‘No, no,’ Ovidios said with a dismissive laugh. ‘Biblionecromancers can’t hurt anyone, not even themselves, desp
ite their eternal flirtation with murder and self-extinction. They’re interested solely in the ritual of literary mourning, which is possibly the most poetic form of suicidal yearning. And the most innocuous! I’d sooner that than see my children pine to ride an avalanche in Devil’s Gulch, I can tell you! But enough of my offspring. We’ve forgotten about our game.’

  I took another look around. The Fumoir was becoming more and more deserted. I would have to hurry, or the last interesting specimens for our game would be gone.

  There was one corner of the establishment where the tobacco smoke seemed to be swirling with special intensity, as if different laws of nature prevailed there. I put this down to my befuddled condition. Until now, I had only been able to make out a silhouette that vaguely reminded me of someone, but who? At last the fog cleared. Just a little at first, then more and more. I gave a start. Was that …?

  Yes, a robe embroidered with invocative Bookemistic poetry … a hat such as only a scarecrow would wear, with little animal bones and insect fetishes dangling from the brim … a face like something out of a nightmare, and on it the self-infatuated grin of someone who can not only endure such a spectacle in the mirror but can’t get enough of it. It was an Uggly! Heavens alive! Could it be Inazia Anazazi, the Ugglian bookseller who, together with Ahmed ben Kibitzer, had been largely instrumental in rescuing me from the catacombs?

  I rubbed my eyes and looked again. Yes, it was an Uggly. But no, it wasn’t Inazia.

  She didn’t even resemble her closely. Three things were responsible for my brief spell of confusion:

  First, that Ugglies favour an extraordinary but almost uniform style of dress. This makes it easy to mistake one for another.

  Second, that I hadn’t set eyes on an Uggly for an eternity and on Inazia for at least two eternities. What must she look like today?

 

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