The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.13Walter Moers
Many of them I could decipher with ease, for instance advertisements for alternative book manufacture using hempen paper or Bibliognostic health check-ups, an Ugglian publisher or a dwarfs’ printworks. Others meant nothing to me. I was lucky if I could even identify the languages on many of the billboards by referring to the script, but what they were advertising I couldn’t say. Ovidios and the Wolperting had emphasised what a tolerant and cosmopolitan city Bookholm had become since the overthrow of Bookemism. I now realised how far that process had gone. Ornian cuneiform, Demonistic ligatures, Dullsgardian hieroglyphs, Midgardian knot writing or archaistic Troll runes – I could usually only guess at the products or services they offered. Sometimes the addition of drawings, coats of arms or symbols were an aid to deciphering them. But what did a gold death’s head with snakes wriggling out of its eye sockets signify? What about a seashell with a spider sitting on a pearl? What could one buy in a shop whose sign displayed a fully bandaged chicken? No thanks, I didn’t want to know that, so I kept to the middle of the street and left it to my imagination to visualise what these shops actually sold.
The district in which I had now been for some time was quite familiar to me because it had largely escaped the fire and I’d formerly roamed around there. I was surrounded by a reassuringly nostalgic maze of old half-timbered buildings, some of which housed the most delightful antique shops. Not snobbish luxury establishments selling prohibitively expensive items from the Golden List. No, what still predominated here was the traditional spirit of old Bookholm. I at last saw shop windows displaying the kind of books for which the true bibliophile came here. After only a short spell of window-gazing I discovered rare first editions like The Third Side of the Coin by Elmura Voddnik, Gingivitis Salad by Tomok Zebulon, Pain in My Wooden Leg by Hugobart Cramella and No Coffin for Mother by Count Petroso di Gadusti – Zamonian literary jewels such as one would seek in vain elsewhere. Here, however, they occupied their due place: right at the front of the display but affordably priced. In the next window I was overjoyed to see collected editions of Orphetu Harnschauer, Clas Reischdenk and Avegeus Luftbart, together with the long, character-rich novels of Asdrel Chickens, which one can reread again and again. The trenchantly satirical novels of Slainco Brafesair, six hundred years old but still ultra-modern, in the long-out-of-print woodcut edition. The gigantic tome by Marvin de Lescetuge with illustrations by the immortal Oved Usegart! All the fairy tales by Nartinan Schneidhasser in the much sought-after India-paper edition, signed! A quarto edition, bound in blue bamboo-worm silk, of Abradauch Sellerie’s brilliant essay on Perla la Gadeon. All Doylan Cone’s Hermes Olshlock novels in the legendary collected edition complete with magnifying glass. The collected letters of Volkodir Vanabim – uncensored! A volume of the best humorous sketches by the great Rubert Jashem! The complete first editions of Eglu Wicktid! The youthful reminiscences of Abradauch Sellerie, unabridged! The unsurpassable jungle tales of Plairdy Kurding with watercolour illustrations. Eri Elfengold’s amusing and informative cultural history, which renders it unnecessary to read a whole library of books. The tension-laden novellas by Trebor Sulio Vessenton, which still fill me with unadulterated envy. And Cronosso Urbein by Felino Deeda – the first really good novel in Zamonian literary history! All these in a single shop window and at prices reasonable enough to bring tears to one’s eyes. This was Bookholm at its best!
Well, pleasing though this was, it wasn’t my real reason for lingering so stubbornly in this district. For the moment, the acquisition of antiquarian books came very low on my list of priorities. The true reason, dear friends, was that I was in the vicinity of Colophonius Regenschein Lane, where Dr Ahmed ben Kibitzer kept his small antiquarian bookshop specialising in Nightingalistics. But going there wasn’t quite as simple as it sounds, dear friends. Oh no! It was an extremely tricky undertaking, a regular suicide mission. Clearing the air with Ovidios had been a piece of cake compared to the settlement of accounts that faced me now. Why? Because Kibitzer and I had been at loggerheads for a hundred years or more. A hundred years! Can you imagine it?
I briefly considered disappearing. Perhaps I hadn’t found the lane after all. Modern Bookholm was the very devil – nothing was the way it used to be! Yes, that was the answer!
Nonsense, the lane was just round the corner. Whom was I kidding? Myself? No, I had to go there or I wouldn’t have a moment’s peace. I tossed three peppermint pastilles into my mouth to offset my hangover breath and resolutely headed for Regenschein Lane. It was now or never! Into battle!
Shortly before reaching Kibitzer’s shop I came to a halt once more. What on earth would I say to him and in what tone of voice? How to start? A prey to indecision, I paced up and down the lane, repeatedly casting fearful glances at the shop out of the corner of my eye. It looked exactly as I remembered it: the darkest and most inconspicuous shop in the street, with candlelight fitfully flickering inside. To me the entrance looked like the gate of hell with a three-brained monster lurking inside, ready to devour me. By the Orm, was I nervous! I sucked a fourth pastille.
Kibitzer’s was another of those fortunate establishments that had escaped the flames and its outward appearance hadn’t changed at all since then. It was clear that he still specialised in the curious writings of Professor Abdul Nightingale, the Nocturnomath-in-chief whose abstruse work Domesticated Darkness was the only item displayed in the window. From the look of the shop, therefore, Kibitzer hadn’t changed a jot. Why was I so scared, then?
How cordial, friendly and productive our relations had been for so many years! After I left the city we had regularly exchanged yards-long missives devoted to passionate debates about literature, art, science and philosophy, though we strictly avoided the subject of Bookholm at my request. I could have filled numerous volumes with this meaty correspondence, in which, after all, four brains had taken part. I had written to Kibitzer from all over Zamonia during my extended travels. It was correspondence of the highest order. Brilliant ideas flew back and forth between us like electric sparks. Arrogant though it may seem to say so, the correspondence between Ojahnn Golgo van Fontheweg and Heidler von Clirrfisch is thoroughly inane by comparison. But then … Well, then came success. My success. And with it, fame. Good gracious, I was soon too preoccupied with replying to admirers’ letters and accepting literary prizes to keep up with an old pen friend. Our letters became sparser, my literary output more and more copious. Then Kibitzer, in his now only sporadic letters, dared several times to express criticism of my work, hesitant at first but ever more outspoken as time went by. In his opinion I wrote far too much and was becoming slipshod. My initial response was to defend myself in mild terms, as if shooing away an importunate fly. Then, when Ahmed repeated and specified his charges, allegedly in the name of friendship, I reacted with undisguised asperity. In the end, when he stubbornly insisted that the Orm had deserted me, my treatment of him was thoroughly condescending. How can I put it? One word led to another, the tone of our correspondence became increasingly offended and offensive, and finally it ceased altogether. I still recall the last sentence I wrote him: ‘Looking down on you from the dizzy height of my sales figures, I can only smile at your stylistic bean-counting, you third-class Three-Brain!’
The latter was a mean and not particularly subtle sideswipe at his membership of the Nocturnomath category that possesses only three brains, not five or six like many of his kind, still less seven like his great idol, the celebrated Professor Nightingale.
That must have touched a nerve, because he never wrote to me again. Not a line. Not even a postcard. And what did I do? Nothing. In all that time I failed to summon up even a smidgen of magnanimity and apologise to Ahmed for my crude blow beneath the belt. A whole century had gone by! And now I was standing outside his shop, kneading the hem of my cloak in agitation.
‘My dear Ahmed,’ I experimented in my head, ‘didn’t you get my latest letters? The Zamonian postal service is becoming more and more unreliable.’
Better to remain icy cold? After all, I didn’t really feel guilty, did I? He had no more written to me than I had to him. He had wounded my pride and was just as responsible for the situation as I was, the pigheaded creature! So, quite coolly:
‘Good afternoon, Kibitzer. How are you?’
Nonsense. That would be stupid. Not my style. How about the jovial touch, as if nothing had happened?
‘Hello there, Ahmed, you old bugger! Long time no see, what, hahaha?’
No, that would be too barefaced. Ours had been a genuine friendship, after all, but still … No, better to be really personal right away. Reproachful. Go straight into the attack:
‘Ahmed, oh Ahmed, old friend, why have you forgotten me?’ Then a long, silent, plaintive look with outstretched arms and tears in my eyes.
Perfect! The melodramatic act! That was it! I rubbed the corner of my eye to start the tears flowing.
At that moment: ‘Come on in,’ said a very soft, reedy voice in my head.
‘What?’ I asked, dumbfounded.
‘I’ve been watching you for the last half-hour, Optimus. You’ve put on a lot of weight around the hips, my dear fellow. All right, come in. And stop strangling your cloak!’
Damn it! Kibitzer had been standing there in the dark, watching me through the window! Nocturnomaths could also read one’s thoughts through closed doors, of course. What an idiot I was! I wished the ground would swallow me up.
‘You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Come on in, my time is precious. In with you!’
I let go of the hem of my cloak and drew a deep breath. Then I turned the door handle and entered the gloomy shop.
A bell jangled in the same discreet manner as it had two centuries ago, of that I felt sure, but didn’t it now sound a trifle jarring – almost imperceptibly discordant? I was engulfed by the same musty odour of books, but didn’t it smell a trifle more ancient than before? There was the same dim candlelight, but wasn’t it a little dimmer than in the old days – dimmer and harder for the eyes to adjust to? There were no curtains or blinds, so how did Kibitzer manage to keep the interior so confoundedly dark when the sun was shining outside? Well, Nocturnomaths loved darkness above all things because it facilitated their brain work, so they were bound to have their ways and means. Perhaps Kibitzer bred a certain kind of book dust that filtered the light. At all events, the air was filled with whirling motes of dust stirred up by my entrance. I was almost blinded for a few moments, but that, too, reminded me vividly of my first visit to this antiquarian bookshop.
‘Ahmed?’ I said, blinking. ‘Are you there?’
The spell was broken. Those opening words had issued from my lips unbidden. They were neither false nor overly cold or brash, but simply spontaneous. I felt relieved.
‘Of course I’m here,’ came the low-voiced reply. ‘We’ve been expecting you.’
I rubbed my eyes in an attempt to see better. I’d been expected? Who was ‘we’? Was he speaking in the royal plural, or was there really someone else there? Where was the confounded Nocturnomath, anyway?
Then a candle flared up, just as it had the first time we met. I could almost have believed that someone was staging the whole thing to awaken old memories.
Suddenly, conjured up by the candlelight, Kibitzer was standing in front of me, only a few paces away in the whirling book dust.
‘Hello, Optimus,’ he said, this time in his proper voice because his lips moved. It sounded even reedier and frailer than his cerebral voice. We exchanged a long look.
Kibitzer had aged in a positively dismaying way. In the many years since our last meeting he had developed a growing resemblance to his desiccated book covers, with their shrunken leather skin and faded colours. Tanned by age, his face would probably have been indistinguishable from the book-lined walls, with their rows of gnarled and mildewed spines, had it not been for his big, shining eyes. I was worried to note, however, that the latter were far less luminous than of old. The light in them was dim and fitful, like that of dying embers. Formerly huge, the orbs in his imposing thinker’s head were half obscured by drooping eyelids, which he clearly found it hard to keep open.
‘Hello, Ahmed,’ I replied. ‘So you knew I was coming?’
‘Yes and no. I didn’t really believe it until half an hour ago, but she has known for weeks.’
His head shook alarmingly as he spoke. It was amazing that his thin, tremulous neck could still support the heavy thing with its three brains. I noticed only now that one of his ears had a tiny hearing aid inserted in it.
‘She?’ I queried.
‘Inazia,’ he said. ‘Inazia Anazazi.’
He shone the candle on a niche in the shelves beside him. Inazia Anazazi the Uggly was sitting on a chair, staring at me. She loomed up out of the darkness like a ghost, and I only just managed to suppress a cry of horror.
‘Hello, Yarnspinner,’ she croaked in her unpleasant, grating voice.
‘Er … Hello, Inazia,’ I said haltingly. ‘What a surprise! You’re looking well.’ That blatant lie tripped off my tongue with ease.
‘Thanks,’ said the Uggly. ‘You’ve grown fat.’
It was nice to be back among friends. There was no need to waste time on pleasantries – a luxury I’d almost forgotten about.
‘She knew exactly, to the nearest day and hour, when you would come – has done for weeks. Since I don’t believe in Ugglian hocus-pocus, I’m sure it was a trick of some kind. Are the two of you in cahoots?’
That was ridiculous. He must have been joking – Nocturnomath humour! I hadn’t set eyes on the Uggly since I’d last seen Kibitzer, nor had I been in contact with her in the meantime. Unlike the old, multicerebral creature, she’d hardly changed at all. She was looking as old and hideous as ever. I think Ugglies are born old. Hideous, anyway.
‘To anticipate your question, Optimus,’ said Kibitzer, ‘yes, your eyes don’t deceive you, I’m ill. Very ill. I’m suffering from a rare disease called senescentia rapida – also known as Nocturnomathitis.’
‘Is it, er … catching?’ I asked, involuntarily retreating a step. I instantly felt ashamed of my tactless and hysterical reaction.
‘Still the inveterate hypochondriac, eh?’ Kibitzer grinned. ‘No, it isn’t infectious. Never fear, only Nocturnomaths can catch the disease. It’s accursedly genetic, and it affects only a handful of us. I’m one of the lucky ones – I’ve hit the jackpot! There’s only one symptom, actually, but it’s a tough one. Once the disease manifests itself, you age rapidly, and by rapidly I mean at a really appalling rate. It’s to do with my three brains’ simultaneous consumption of energy. We think too much! Many Nocturnomaths’ physiques can’t sustain that in the long run. The cells go into premature retirement, to employ a humorous metaphor. I’ve aged a century in the last ten years.’
‘That’s, er … most regrettable.’ Regrettable? Good God, we hadn’t seen each other for ages, he’d just revealed that he was terribly sick, and all that occurred to me were tactless platitudes. Could he hear me? I wondered. He was wearing a deaf aid, after all. ‘I mean … I simply can’t cope with diseases,’ I said somewhat louder. ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t think of anything better to say.’
‘Know the first thing that tells you you’re really old?’ Kibitzer demanded in a quavering voice. ‘Not forgetfulness, oh no. You notice that people are speaking louder and slower, as if you’re an imbecile or a little child. I’m not hard of hearing, damn it!’
‘But you are hard of hearing!’ I insisted. ‘You’re wearing a deaf aid.’
‘But I can hear perfectly well with it – I’m not deaf when I wear the thing. That’s the whole point of hearing aids!’
I said nothing. We were heading straight for one of those nitpicking altercations such as can only occur between two very old friends who habitually hold opposing views.
‘You’ve no need to burst into tears over my fate, either,’ Kibitzer said stubbornly. ‘I ca
The Uggly laughed as if this were a particularly good joke. I seized the chance to change the subject.
‘Did you really know I was coming, Inazia?’ I asked.
The Uggly coughed and fanned some book dust away. ‘It’s no hocus-pocus, Kibitzer knows that perfectly well. It’s a natural ability. Stupidly, a lot of Ugglies make a big thing out of it so as to coax money out of tourists’ pockets, and that has blighted our reputation. But it isn’t right. Time is relative and Ugglies simply have another perception of it. From time to time we can look into the fourth dimension. It’s not witchcraft, it’s a defect. Yes, I knew you were coming, but not only through my Ugglian senses. We cooked it up between us.’
Now it was Kibitzer’s turn to laugh. It sounded like a laborious effort to draw breath.
I felt puzzled. ‘Have I got this right?’ I asked. ‘You mean the two of you engineered my visit to Bookholm?’
‘There’s a letter in your pocket, isn’t there?’ asked Kibitzer, tidying some papers on the counter. ‘A letter that pretty cogently confirms my personal opinion of your work. Our bone of contention: that you’re stuck in an artistic cul-de-sac and have lost the Orm. That is so, isn’t it?’
The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes