The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.12Walter Moers
This realisation made me feel suddenly sentimental, although my extremely fragile condition may also have been responsible. I tottered on in tears, thinking of the little one-eyed friends I hadn’t seen for so long. I sobbed to myself until I heard the strains of an old-fashioned hurdy-gurdy such as Bookholmian street musicians often play. This dispelled my tearful mood and I looked up. Standing here and there in the entrances to various buildings were small groups of loudly chatting, laughing people – usually a sign that there are places of liquid refreshment nearby. Excellent! My maudlin state of mind abruptly left me. Having instinctively headed in the right direction, all I needed to do now was settle on a suitable establishment. One particularly numerous group was being entertained by a busker playing an ancient Aerophone – he was no virtuoso – and warbling in a reedy falsetto:
‘Traveller, if you go to Bookholm,
don’t forget to bring a book home,
bring a book home!
Traveller, if you go to Bookholm,
don’t forget to drink some Bookwine,
drink some Bookwine.
But be warned that those who do
will themselves become books too.’
That was meant metaphorically, of course, but it sounded inviting. It also presaged something to drink. At last! I elbowed my way into a taproom chock-full of carousing customers – tourists, as I could tell from their multilingual babble of voices. I heard the low moans of Gloomberg Dwarfs, the froglike croaking of Moss Trolls, the mercurial syllabic sing-song of Camomills and the eerie yodelling of Devil’s Gulchers. When a chair chanced to become vacant I promptly flopped down on it and beckoned to a waiter, a squat little Wood Goblin with shaggy hair and a mournful expression. Far from saying good evening, let alone taking my order, he simply plunked a glass and a brimming pitcher of wine on the table in front of me.
‘One Bookwine!’ he yelled without looking at me and walked off. That was absolutely fine with me. I preferred this uncomplicated mode of service to an arrogant wine waiter. Before I could pour myself a glass, I noticed that the table was strewn with slips of paper. At first I took them for beer mats, but then I saw that something was printed on them. I picked one up and read it.
I couldn’t help laughing. Great! I’d ended up in a tourist trap! It was only now that I spotted the hunchbacked glass engraver in the corner of the tavern adorning cheap glasses with customers’ names to order, likewise the trashy oil paintings on the walls from which gilt-edged greats of classical Zamonian literature, from Aleisha Wimpersleake to Bethelzia B. Binngrow, looked down self-importantly at the customers. The wine here was bound to cost three times as much as elsewhere and was probably – what was the betting? – the lousiest plonk to be found anywhere in Bookholm. However, I’d sat down, been served and was tormented by thirst. So I poured myself a glass. The first thing that struck me was the wine’s truly exceptional colour. It was green, by the Orm! I held my glass up to the candlelight. It was as vivid a green as woodruff lemonade and slightly luminous. Or was that another after-effect of my Fumoir fix? Everything within me baulked at drinking the stuff. Then I thought, what the hell, I’ve got to drink something, so down the hatch and get it over! Just one glass, then pay and find a quieter, more congenial establishment that serves decent local wine without any alchemical additives. So I gulped the green brew down.
That wine, my friends, was downright sick-making! By that I really mean it was an absolute emetic. It was only with the utmost self-control that I managed to suppress an urge to throw up on the taproom floor. The taste might have been that of an ancient tome simmered for days in cheap grape juice and then cooled to cellar temperature. Either that or a bucket of dishwater with an old blackboard sponge squeezed out in it. It certainly didn’t belong in a wine glass!
Pulling myself together, I resisted the impulse to slam down some money on the table, storm out and relieve myself in the open air. I simply remained seated and gave my innards a chance to settle down. My nausea gave way first to a vague sense of foreboding, then to a warmth that suffused my stomach. I was feeling better! I’d been completely parched and in need of some fluid inside me, but that I could have obtained free of charge and more palatably from any municipal fountain. Now I had to get out of there! Wanting to summon the waiter and pay, I looked around and noticed that some of the customers were sitting there as if totally transfixed and entranced, with their eyes shut and empty wine glasses in their hands. I had no idea what uncivilised province they hailed from – perhaps it was the first glass of wine they’d ever drunk in their life. Then again, perhaps they’d drunk a few glasses too many.
Suddenly, everything went black.
For one terrible moment I feared I’d lost consciousness. No wonder, considering all the unpredictable toxic substances I’d involuntarily absorbed in the Fumoir! But then it occurred to me that you can’t be worried if you’ve really lost consciousness.
My next thought was that I might have gone blind from one moment to the next. Such a thing could happen, I’d read. Almost simultaneously, however, my eyesight returned in a puzzling manner: it was as if I were a worm wriggling out into daylight through loose soil. Above me was a dazzlingly blue sky with white clouds sailing across it. But if I was neither unconscious nor blind, surely I must at least have lost my mind? A moment ago I’d been sitting in a noisy tavern full of people and now I was suddenly all on my own. Yes, but where? In a wood, obviously, because I was surrounded by young trees. More than that, I myself was clearly a tree! Or what else grows out of the ground in the middle of a wood and puts out little green tentacles? If this didn’t indicate that I’d just been afflicted with some mental illness, what was it?
Very well, so I was a tree. A very small tree, though: just a sapling that had not long broken through the forest floor. But I grew, and I grew very fast. I rose higher and higher as night and day alternated at whirlwind speed overhead. The sun traversed the sky within seconds, rising and setting, rising and setting and giving way to the moon, which waxed and waned with breathtaking rapidity. Months went by in a few moments. I developed little branches, put out roots, grew leaves and proliferated in all directions until, in a trice, I was enclosed by a dense tracery of branches and foliage. I had become a majestic poplar in whose branches birds nested and squirrels clambered around. At times I was surrounded by dark forest floor, at others by brilliant green foliage, at still others by dazzling white snow. The seasons came and went as swiftly and regularly as the pendulum of a metronome. I had almost reconciled myself to my permanent, peaceful existence as a poplar when I suddenly toppled over.
I had been felled.
I was carted off and dumped in a river, then drifted downstream with many other tree trunks, slowly at first, then faster and faster. Water eddied and foamed around me, and all at once I wasn’t a tree trunk in water any more, I was an idea! Or rather, a concatenation of ideas, a serpentine succession of words. In short, a whole sentence drifting down a mental river through the cerebral convolutions of an author engaged in writing an entire novel. Drifting in this river like people drowning were the novel’s principal characters, who were calling out printable sentences such as ‘Ah, Hector, my love for you is as futile as a desire for warm glaciers!’ Yes, dear friends, I had clearly become insane.
Or had I? The next moment, foam engulfed me once more. I was again a tree trunk in a river and the stream was slowing. In company with all the other tree trunks I was drifting towards a massive building with tall chimneys, and issuing from it came the demented screech of circular saws. It was a paper mill! That spelled the end of my existence as a poplar, because I was swiftly sawn into ever smaller pieces. At first into thick slices, then into thin planks, then cut up into cubes, shredded into shavings and finally reduced to thin fibres. Having been once more steeped in water and stirred into a pulp, I was sieved by fine-meshed screens and finally air-dried. I had become paper!
But not for long, my friends, for scarcely had I been d
But hardly had I grown used to this idea when I became an anxiety once more. Not, this time, in the publisher’s mind but in that of the author who had written the book. And I was only one anxiety among many. He wondered how well his novel would sell; what friends and critics would think of it and write about it; whether the title (A Desire for Warm Glaciers) had been a good choice; whether the jacket should have been green rather than yellow; whether the multiplicity of parentheses in the text didn’t seem a bit overdone; whether he would ever follow up this masterpiece with anything equally perfect; and many other worries. Then the author got drunk and began to weep. Tears blurred his vision and – bingo! – I turned back into a book: a book in a bookshop picked up by a hand that paid at the cash desk, took me home and opened me. And then I once more found myself in a stream of ideas, of immaculate, perfectly copy-edited sentences that poured themselves out of the book and into the reader’s brain. I was being read!
But – hey presto! – it was suddenly light again. I was sitting in the taproom with an empty wine glass in my hand, instantaneously hemmed in by people and noise. I was neither comatose nor blind, nor had I gone mad. I had merely got drunk on Bookwine.
By the Orm! That was some alcoholic delirium! Not only had I imagined being a book in all the various phases of its existence, but I had written it myself and printed and published it. And, on top of everything else, I had experienced the unique sensation of being read! I now knew what it was like to be a book. Incredible!
How much time had elapsed? An hour, three hours, a year? No idea. It seemed highly probable that such a trance had lasted less than a minute, because nothing around me had changed. The same people were sitting in the same places and the house musician, a lutenist whose music filled the taproom, was still playing the same tune.
I promptly poured myself another glass and knocked it back. At once, exactly the same thing happened. The light went out and I became tree, paper, author, publisher and reader in turn. After this swift and fascinating metamorphosis, the light went on and it was over again. I repeated the process another three times until the pitcher was empty, but even on the penultimate occasion I experienced a certain satiety and even nausea, as if I’d spent too long on a merry-goround. So I left it at one pitcher, beckoned to the waiter, paid him and staggered outside.
I said ‘staggered’, dear friends, because this Bookwine appeared to pack a powerful punch, not only metamorphically but alcoholically as well. Or was it Fumoir poisoning? Both, of course. Besides, the fact that I’d eaten almost nothing all day was certainly no aid to stability. I simply had to get something solid inside me!
Not far away was an establishment that seemed familiar to me as soon as I crossed the threshold. Of course, it was the nameless little coffee bar in which I’d eaten my first (and hitherto last) slice of beebread!1 This was where I’d met the scheming literary agent Claudio Harpstick, who had artfully put me in touch with Pfistomel Smyke and was largely responsible for my abduction into the catacombs of Bookholm.
I took an involuntary step backwards, then changed my mind and went inside. The smell of food was too tempting and my hunger too overpowering. Besides, it was only a snack bar like any other, even if it had been the place where my troubles began. Time seemed to have stood still there. The décor was just as it had been two centuries ago: bare brick walls, shelves filled with cheap books one could read while eating at the scrubbed wooden tables. There was also the same old counter surmounted by a big blackboard inscribed with the chef’s specials in coloured chalk. They still served the same simple, typically Bookholmian food and drink as they had in days of yore: Reader’s Espresso and Balono de Zacher Biscuits, Prince Sang froid Pie and Mantho Snam Spaghetti. Oh yes, and Bee-Bread, of course. It was a touching sight. I’d have taken a bet that even the chalk inscriptions hadn’t altered in two hundred years.
I fear that all my good resolutions about a sensible diet had been left behind in the Fumoir, together with my wits, because I now threw over the traces. I devoured three bowls of Mantho Snam Spaghetti, two Prince Sangfroid Pies, some thyme-flavoured toast with melted Midgard cheese and four assorted slices of cake, each named after a different author and all topped with whipped cream. This time I passed on the bee-bread for reasons you, my sympathetic friends, will doubtless understand. Having bought myself a big bag of Balono de Zacher biscuits for later on, I emerged into the street once more. The night, my revitalised self decided, was still young. Besides, I was thirsty again.
1 See The City of Dreaming Books, p. 72 ff. (Tr.)
A Reunion with Kibitzer
WHEN I AWOKE the next morning I didn’t, for a dismayingly long time, know where I was. Nor did I know who I was.
Then both things came back to me: I was Optimus Yarnspinner and I was in my hotel room in Bookholm. In the first instance I was right, in the second utterly wrong. This certainly wasn’t my hotel room.
I noticed that because of three things: first, the wallpaper; second, the four suitcases beside the bed (I’ve never owned a suitcase in my life); and third, the Frogling standing beside the window, who was quaking with fear and staring at me round the curtain.
‘Please go away!’ he said in a hoarse voice. ‘Just go!’
To cut a very embarrassing story short, I’d spent the night not only in the wrong hotel room but in the wrong hotel as well. In my inebriated condition I had simply staggered into the nearest one, marched into some room or other, barricaded the door behind me with a wardrobe, flopped down on the bed and fallen into a swoonlike sleep.
The Frogling, whose room this was, had been so startled and intimidated by my behaviour that he hadn’t even tried to remove the wardrobe or cry for help. He had simply waited for me to wake up. He didn’t want to hear any explanations or excuses for my uncivilised conduct; he just asked me to leave. So I did him that favour, having seldom felt so ashamed in my life. My hotel was three streets further on.
As I was laboriously and remorsefully piecing together last night’s mosaic of incidents, a thoroughly ridiculous book title – A Desire for Warm Glaciers – kept going through my head. What I could still remember quite well was that, immediately after my orgy of gluttony, I had lurched into a nearby wine bar to keep my promise to myself, which was to drink something other than hallucinogenic Bookwine. I sampled – rather over-liberally – some grape juice from the Bookholm area. From that point onward my powers of recall developed fine cracks at first and then lacunae of steadily increasing size. I could still remember having a fierce argument with a gigantic Turniphead, but I’d forgotten what it was about. Then we came to blows and I had to change locations. I discovered a basement dive situated in a seedy side street and patronised exclusively by famous authors of whom I’d never heard. The last thing I recalled was that the wine there, although not particularly good, was sensationally cheap and served in rusty
Suffering from fierce self-reproach and an even fiercer headache, I returned to my hotel, where I had a wash, settled my bill and set off with my modest baggage, intending to find some better and more central accommodation during the day. In the course of a long walk that took me to the city centre, I endeavoured to clear my head and straighten myself out. When you’re approaching your three-hundredth birthday, as I was, you have to admit it takes longer to recover from such a binge. I was through with intoxicants of all kinds – that I solemnly swore to myself while walking! The only kind of intoxication to which I still aspired was an Ormic trance.
The Bookholmers had always been fond of self-confident and inventive forms of advertising. For their own trades, for books, for publishing houses, for artistic projects, for readings and poetry evenings, for cultural functions of all kinds, for cures for writer’s block, for delicious cakes and hot coffee. Painted hoardings, posters, the sides of buildings, fliers stuck to lamp-posts, banners suspended across streets, stentorian-voiced barkers reading aloud from books, importunate touts attired in printed galleys – even ‘walking books’ on legs – were among the city’s omnipresent features. But the propensity for barefaced selling of all kinds of things had inexorably increased during my absence. I found this far more noticeable on my midday stroll than I had the previous day.
My thick head precluded me from deciding whether or not I liked this: whether I found it amusing, intrusive, ingenious, embarrassing, original, or simply brash. It certainly added to the city’s entertainment value. When in Bookholm, I had always felt as if I were roaming through the pages of an illustrated book in which the pictures moved. But where one sign had hung in the old days, three were now hanging, and where a wall had borne one poster, it now bore ten. If I looked up while walking along a street, the sky was filled with promises in the form of billboards advertising cheap or expensive books, hot coffee or pastries fresh from the oven, the best eyeglasses in the city, or a refreshing neck massage administered by muscular Peat Midgets.
The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes