The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.15Walter Moers
At that moment, dear friends, I really did grow uneasy. My visit to that bookshop had already been full of surprises, but this turn in Inazia’s story was truly unexpected.
‘But the Shadow King is dead!’ I blurted out.
‘That’s what I told the Biblionaut myself,’ the Uggly replied. ‘But he paused in the doorway, turned to me with the last of the lightning flickering behind him and said words to the following effect: “With respect, madam, no one who has spent any length of time in the catacombs truly believes that the Shadow King is dead. Every Biblionaut has his own tale to tell of the Shadow King, every last one! Some have only heard him rustling, others whispering, yet others laughing. Some claim to have seen him with their own eyes and many allege that they actually felt him when he whispered in their ear in some dark tunnel. There are some whom he led so badly astray in the Labyrinth that they took weeks to find their way out. To the Biblionauts, the Shadow King has long ceased to be a myth and become a commonplace. It’s like the dangerous beasts of the wilderness: you can roam the Great Forest for years without ever encountering a werewolf, but werewolves are always on your mind. Always! Is one lurking behind the nearest tree? Or not? If you’re lucky you never meet one, but if you’re unlucky, one will cross your path some day. That’s what happened to me. The last thing my poor eyes saw before they were plucked from their sockets was the Shadow King! Believe me, madam, or believe me not!” So saying, Blind Belphegor doffed his hat, performed a courteous bow and went tapping off into the night.’ Inazia heaved a sigh of relief and resumed her seat.
‘Nonsense!’ I said. ‘A catacomb fairy tale! Any number of things could have robbed him of his eyesight. There are creatures down there for which we don’t even have names. I know from personal experience that some of them rustle like paper and emit the strangest noises in the dark.’
Inazia shrugged her shoulders. ‘I’m only telling you what the blind Biblionaut said. We thought it would interest you.’
‘What about the letter?’ I asked impatiently. I’d heard enough creepy stories. I wanted to get out into the daylight.
‘Well,’ said Inazia, ‘as soon as the Biblionaut had finally departed, I naturally leafed through The Hammer of the Ugglies, my new antiquarian treasure. And I suddenly came across the letter—’
‘The letter that’s now in your pocket,’ Kibitzer broke in. ‘A letter from the Leather Grotto. Addressed to you.’
‘I brought it here at once,’ said Inazia, ‘and Kibitzer thoroughly analysed it on the spot.’
‘The paper consists of fungal fibres,’ Kibitzer pontificated, ‘and this, because of their minimal saturation with carbonic acid, leads one to the almost inescapable conclusion that they hail from the lower reaches of the catacombs and were processed there. The paper isn’t even very old and the ink was obtained from the blood of Grotto Lice, which live only at very low levels. The letter came from the Labyrinth, that’s beyond doubt.’
‘But who wrote it?’ I asked. ‘Can you shed any light on that?’
‘Well,’ growled the Nocturnomath, ‘if the authorities requested me for an expert opinion and I had to testify in court under oath, I would then, having meticulously analysed the writer’s vocabulary and submitted his handwriting to the most thorough graphological research, submit that only one person can enter into consideration.’
‘And that would be …?’ I demanded in an agony of suspense.
‘You,’ Kibitzer replied tersely.
‘But that’s absurd!’ I cried. ‘I can’t have written the letter.’
‘I know,’ Kibitzer growled. ‘That’s the mystery. I like riddles, but I detest riddles I can’t solve. This is one such.’
‘Is that all?’ I asked. ‘Can’t you say anything more?’
‘Only that the writer – since it wasn’t you – can brilliantly imitate the style of your Ormless period.’ Kibitzer tittered. ‘I laughed so much, my hearing aid fell out.’
‘The sender’s address is given as the Leather Grotto. Could it have been written by a Bookling?’
‘Booklings don’t write, you should know that better than anyone. They’re notorious readers who devote their lives entirely to reading. They’re persistent consumers of literature, but they don’t produce it. A complex parody such as that letter represents can only have been produced by someone of long experience and great literary ability. And in that connection too, only a certain name comes to mind.’
‘Homuncolossus?’ I asked. ‘The Shadow King?’
‘Well, he’s the only person that occurred to me who possesses those qualifications and lives deep down in the Labyrinth. He’s also the only creature that knows you personally and might take it into his head to write you a letter – for whatever reason! Provided he’s still alive, of course. This is circumstantial evidence, not proof, but one can’t simply brush it aside.’
‘But I saw the Shadow King in flames,’ I cried. ‘He was absolutely ablaze, how often do I have to repeat that? No one could have survived that, not even he.’
‘I’m only weighing up the facts,’ said Kibitzer. ‘I’m not saying the letter actually came from the Shadow King.’
‘We spent a long time wondering whether or not to send you the letter,’ the Uggly put in. ‘In the end we agreed that there were no two ways about it, the answer went without saying. Kibitzer insisted on sending it without any explanation. I’m sure he was still angry with you.’
Kibitzer nodded. ‘I didn’t believe you would actually come to Bookholm. I didn’t even believe you would read the letter at all. I thought you’d become an incorrigibly arrogant twerp. Well, I was wrong. You have become an arrogant twerp, but you may still be curable. I apologise for the first of those assessments.’
Friends are quite something! They tell you to your face you’ve become fat and arrogant. They think you’re a twerp, they scare you with their horrific tales of diseases and catacombs, they send you hurrying halfway across Zamonia because of some mysterious letter, and then they beg your pardon and expect that to put everything right.
‘All right,’ I said with a sigh. ‘Let’s bury the hatchet.’
‘Excellent!’ Kibitzer exclaimed, rubbing his hands. His voice, which had hitherto sounded resigned and quavery, took on an almost energetic note. ‘Then we’ll now proceed to read the will at last!’
‘We’ll do what?’ I said.
‘Read the will,’ Inazia echoed sadly. She looked at me and rolled her eyes.
‘Why,’ I asked, ‘has someone died?’
‘Not yet,’ Kibitzer said cheerfully. ‘Not yet!’
The goings-on in this demented bookshop would not have been out of place in a loony bin for senior citizens. I’d really been hoping to make myself scarce and now I was expected to attend the reading of a will although no one had died! Probably the two oddest booksellers in the whole of Bookholm had become even more eccentric in their twilight years, and that was saying something! Could it be the effect of the dust from the crazy old tomes they dealt in? It was bound to get to their brains via their airways. (I instinctively started breathing a little shallower.) Or did their quirks stem from the curious works in which they specialised? Uggliology and Nightingalistics? How could those who devoted a lifetime to the writings of Professor Abdul Nightingale and militant Uggliologists be expected to preserve their sanity? Moreover, why was I their only customer? Had anyone apart from me ever strayed into their esoteric establishments? I could hardly wait to leave that gloomy hole at last and breathe some fresh air.
Kibitzer had stationed himself at a lectern constructed entirely of books with two candles burning on it. The scene was invested with a look of unreality by the multicoloured will-o’-the-wisps ecstatically whirring around his tremulous head. Was that music I could hear? Yes indeed! Kibitzer was humming a solemn melody in one of his brains and telepathically communicating it to my own. Was that … Goldwine? Yes, quite so. It was Evubeth van Goldwine’s last, unfinished symphony, the one he wrote shortly before his
‘Last will and testament!’ Kibitzer cried dramatically. ‘I, Dr Ahmed ben Kibitzer, hereby bequeath—’
‘Just a minute!’ I exclaimed. ‘Is this your will you’re reading?’
‘What did you think?’ Kibitzer demanded curtly. ‘Can you see anyone else here of testamentary age?’
‘But you aren’t dead yet,’ I protested.
‘And you can hardly wait, eh? Patience, my son, I’m doing my best.’
I fell silent. I’m extremely partial to black humour, but I couldn’t bring myself to find that funny. The old Nocturnomath had probably lost a good proportion of his wits. If a person’s cells die off, those of the brain are surely no exception – in fact, they may even be the first to leave the sinking ship of the intellect. Reading a will prior to death! What on earth had I got myself into?
‘I hereby bequeath’, Kibitzer declaimed solemnly, ‘my entire stock of antiquarian books, together with my shop premises and basement rooms, to Inazia Anazazi the Uggly. This bequest includes all my first editions of works by Professor Abdul Nightingale plus the relevant secondary literature and works on the same subject.’
I looked over at Inazia. A single tear was oozing from her eye. She had clearly been prepared for this bizarre occurrence and was accepting it without demur. I could expect no support from her. Until a few minutes ago I’d attributed the whole thing to a touch of senile dementia, but now it was becoming alarming.
‘My financial assets, which are held in a deposit account earning 5.5 per cent at Bookholm’s Antiquarian Bank, I likewise bequeath to Inazia Anazazi. They should suffice to offset her expenditure on The H ammer of the Ugglies and enable her to make new investments in the antiquarian field.’
The Uggly emitted a loud sob and I yearned to extricate myself from this situation by dissolving into thin air.
‘I leave the fruits of my research into Nightingalistics, which are stored in lightproof, waterproof, fireproof containers in the basement of my shop, to Bookholm University. These include various dissertations on a total of 147 subjects, all my working diaries, a Nightingalian logarithmic table with Kibitzerian additions, over 4,000 test tubes plus contents and all the Nightingalian devotional objects I was able to obtain during my lifetime, together with two of Professor Nightingale’s eyelashes preserved in amber, complete with a certificate of authenticity. All the Nightingalian scientific instruments in my possession are also to go to the University. The relevant instructions for use can be found in my working diaries.’
Some of the airborne glow-worms went into a spin and crash-landed on Kibitzer’s lectern, where they expired beside the candles. I envied the fortunate insects for putting the situation behind them, whereas I, for better or worse, had to attend the ceremony in its entirety.
‘I bequeath to Optimus Yarnspinner all the letters I wrote him, but never posted, in the past two hundred years,’ said Kibitzer. I found this statement as startling as a full-blooded smack in the face.
What? Letters? To me? Had I heard aright? What letters?
With his fingertips, Kibitzer withdrew a dark cloth from a tall object standing right beside the lectern. What came to light was an immense stack of letters yellow with age and tied up in bundles. There must have been several hundred of them.
‘At first I wrote these letters in the hope that our idiotic dispute would one day be settled. By the time it became clear that this was unlikely to happen during my lifetime, writing to him had become a fond habit I couldn’t give up. Even if Optimus is uninterested in them, the letters are addressed to him and, thus, his legal property.’
Now it was I whose eyes filled with tears. He must have written to me every few days throughout the years, but he hadn’t had the courage to send the letters off because I, in my mulish obstinacy, had ceased to correspond with him.
‘I also bequeath to Optimus a masterly example of Vertical Labyrinthine Cartography personally drawn by the great Colophonius Regenschein. This I do in the express hope that he will never need to make practical use of this map.’ Kibitzer emitted a dry cough, and I took the opportunity to quickly wipe my tears on my sleeve.
‘I further stipulate that Inazia Anazazi has my full authority to make my funeral arrangements and administer my estate, expressing the hope that she will not suffer from the bureaucratic despotism to which Ugglies in Bookholm are still, regrettably, exposed. Finally, I wish that my body be cremated and that no one apart from Inazia attend my funeral. My ashes are to be interred in the Antiquarians’ Cemetery in Bookholm.
‘Signed, Ahmed ben Kibitzer.’
Kibitzer rolled up the document. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘that’s that.’ Goldwine’s immortal melody died away in my head.
‘What is all this?’ I protested angrily. ‘You may be ill, but you aren’t dead! Why are you disposing of your goods and chattels like this? Are you crazy? You’re frightening me, Ahmed!’
Kibitzer merely smiled and tottered over to a mass of books stacked up to form a flat-topped table. Closer inspection revealed them to be, not printed books but leather-bound volumes of the kind used for making notes or bookkeeping.
‘These are the handwritten journals of Professor Abdul Nightingale,’ he said proudly. ‘I can’t think of a worthier deathbed.’
I dearly wished that Kibitzer would stop making these tasteless jokes about dying, which were really beginning to get me down, but the old Nocturnomath pursued his macabre conceit even further: he climbed on top of the book table and lay down.
‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Comfortable it isn’t, but that’s not the point. Do you know my absolutely favourite passage in your books, Optimus?’
‘No,’ I replied. ‘You mean there’s a passage you actually like?’
He laughed softly. ‘You’re still resentful, aren’t you? But you’re right. Nothing gets deeper under a person’s skin than criticism from a friend. I should have expressed myself more diplomatically. It was pretty insensitive of me.’
‘All right,’ I said. ‘Let’s bury the subject – er, I mean, let’s forget it.’ I couldn’t think straight. I was still suffering from a monumental hangover and Kibitzer’s funereal metaphors were starting to colour my own use of language.
‘What are you doing on that table?’ I demanded apprehensively. ‘Are you tired?’
Kibitzer completely ignored my question. ‘My favourite passage occurs in The City of Dreaming Books,’ he said. ‘It’s the scene where Colophonius Regenschein dies.’
‘Really?’ I rejoined. ‘Why that one in particular? I’ve written better.’
‘It’s not that. Readers of books tend to look for passages with which they identify and I’ve always considered the way in which Regenschein died to be exemplary.’
It had never occurred to me that a way of dying could be exemplary, but I was at pains not to contradict him at this moment. ‘Regenschein died of his own free will,’ I said. ‘It was … impressive.’
‘That’s just how I’ve always wanted to go myself!’ said Kibitzer. ‘Under my own steam! An uninhibited decision! The triumph of mind over matter! Nothing could be greater!’
Tears sprang to my eyes again. I had finally grasped what was going on here. The real reason for our presence.
‘You intend to die,’ I said quietly. ‘Here and now.’
‘Yes,’ Kibitzer replied with a blissful smile. ‘This is my final wish. I’m dying now. So will you, but a bit later on. We all die the whole time because we really start dying at birth, so let’s not be melodramatic about it.’
He stretched out, and the last of the will-o’-the-wisps spiralled down and landed beside him, where their light faded and went out.
‘I’ve discovered how Regenschein did it,’ said the Nocturnomath. ‘I finally found out after years of concentrated cogitation. It’s a breathing technique. Or rather, a technique that enables you to avoid breathing. Not to be recommended unless you wan
I glanced helplessly at Inazia, but she was simply standing there in frozen silence, like a statue.
‘Listen,’ said Kibitzer. ‘We both know you didn’t come to Bookholm on my account, nor to overcome an existential crisis. Those were only secondary considerations, so let’s not pretend otherwise! You’ve got to look facts in the face. You came because of a few words. Because of five words, to be precise – because of one brief sentence in a letter.’
Kibitzer turned his big eyes on me. Their yellow light flickered like that of a guttering candle.
‘That sentence was: The Shadow King hasreturned.’
I started to say something, but he silenced me with a limp gesture.
‘I know you can’t bring yourself to admit this because you’re too afraid, but you want to return to the Labyrinth. That’s why you came.’
‘Not true!’ I dared to contradict him only in a whisper. ‘Nothing in the world would persuade me to go back there.’
‘I’m glad to hear it,’ said Kibitzer, ‘because I hope your fear will prevail over your curiosity. You survived the catacombs once. That was more luck than any one person deserves. Don’t give the Labyrinth a chance to swallow you up a second time, or it’ll make a thorough job of you. Listen to your fear. Fear springs from common sense and courage is the fruit of stupidity! Who said that?’
‘No idea,’ I replied uncertainly. Mental gymnastics were too much for me at that moment.
‘I did!’ Kibitzer gasped. ‘I said it! I fear I don’t have much more in the way of worldly wisdom to bequeath you, but I’d happily have that aphorism carved on my tombstone. Mark it well!’
That was just the kind of advice Kibitzer had always given me. Its gist was that you should trust your reason more than your emotions. Nocturnomaths were renowned for their mental acuity, not for their sentimentality.
‘You’ve no need to worry,’ I said, still whispering. ‘If anyone’s bad personal experience gives him good reason to fear the catacombs, it’s me. Even looking down the Bookholm Shafts makes me feel sick. I shall never again set foot in the Labyrinth – never!’
The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes