The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.17Walter Moers
‘Shop, damn it!’ I called even louder, thumping the counter with my fist.
At last a gaunt, bald-headed Yellowling in a dirty smock appeared in the doorway at the rear of the shop. Eyeing me with hostility, he folded his scrawny arms on his chest and said, ‘What do you want?’
‘What do I want?’ I retorted sharply. ‘For a start, I want an explanation for this thing here! Who made this Yarnspinner puppet?’ So saying, I held up the lousy puppet by its strings.
‘I did,’ the cadaverous creature said with ill-concealed pride. ‘Kindly put it back where you found it. Handling the puppets is forbidden.’
Instead of complying with his request, I slammed the puppet down on the counter. He gave a start. I took a step closer.
‘Really?’ I snorted. ‘Forbidden, is it? But the exploitation of literary fame is permitted, I infer from the look of your merchandise!’ I made a sweeping gesture that – ostensibly by accident – swept a whole row of puppets off a shelf with my claws. ‘Ooops!’ I said.
The Yellowling winced. ‘Who are you?’ he asked, a trifle less self-assured now. ‘What do you want?’
‘Who am I?’ I replied quietly. ‘I’m someone who has just had a very bad day. Someone who has just looked death in the face and lost a very good friend. Someone who looked in your shop window and was displeased by what he saw there. Someone who believes that vultures, hyenas and carrion of all kinds belong in the wilds and shouldn’t open shops in Bookholm.’
‘But they’re all famous authors,’ the puppet-maker protested in an uncertain voice. ‘They’re public figures. It’s legally permissible to portray them.’
‘I realise that,’ I said. ‘But do you know what isn’t permissible? It isn’t permissible to be so untalented!’ I took the Yarnspinner puppet from the counter. ‘And d’you know why it isn’t permissible? Because I don’t permit it!’ On that note, I hurled the puppet straight at him. The physical violence bit could come now, as far as I was concerned. My wild, dinosaurian genes were running riot.
He instinctively caught the puppet, hugged it to him and stared at me in utter dismay. I almost felt sorry for him.
‘But it’s a Yarnspinner puppet,’ he said plaintively. ‘I made it as lifelike as I could.’
‘Lifelike?’ I laughed. ‘Call that lifelike, you amateur? It isn’t even a bad caricature.’
‘How do you know?’ the Yellowling had the audacity to ask. ‘What makes you think you can judge the quality of a Yarnspinner puppet? Are you a puppet-maker?’
‘No!’ I thundered. ‘I’m not a puppet-maker, I’m Optimus Yarnspinner!’ So saying, I threw back my cowl.
The Yellowling retreated a step. His face turned pale and he dropped the puppet. I really enjoyed that moment, I have to admit. Being able at last to profit from my popularity directly was an entirely new experience: a sense of power! It was better than a punch, better than kicking that exploitative creature in the backside. I had trauma tised him merely by revealing my face! He would never forget this moment, never! He would probably relive it on his deathbed. I felt great.
‘Yarnspinner …’ the Yellowling said in a low voice.
‘Yes,’ I replied with head erect. ‘That is my name.’
‘Yarnspinner …’ he murmured again, making for the door. ‘Yarnspinner …’
Perhaps the shock had robbed him of his few wits. From now on, all he’d be able to do was babble my name in a soundproof cell in Bookholm Asylum. I couldn’t help grinning at the thought.
Standing in the doorway, the puppet-maker yelled, ‘Yarnspinner! Optimus Yarnspinner is in my shop!’
I froze. My euphoria instantly evaporated. This was the last thing I’d expected. The creature ran out into the street and shouted at the top of his voice, ‘Yarnspinner’s in my shop! Yarnspinner, the famous author! He assaulted me!’
Looking through the window, I saw people hurriedly converging from all directions. Damn it! I had to get away! I pulled the cowl over my head and went out into the street.
‘Yarnspinner!’ the Yellowling kept shouting. He pointed to me. ‘That’s him! Optimus Yarnspinner! He hit me!’
I took to my heels at once and sprinted down the street, but the fellow didn’t give up. ‘That’s Yarnspinner!’ he called after me. ‘The one in the cowl! Optimus Yarnspinner! The author! He bust up my shop!’
Glancing over my shoulder, I saw that a whole gang of Live Newspapers had clustered around the yelling puppet-maker. The newsprint-clad gnomes listened to him for a moment. Then, as though in response to a word of command, they came scampering after me.
This wasn’t good! I put on speed. On reaching the next intersection, I looked back once more. Heavens, those gnomes were quick off the mark! A moment later they’d overhauled me.
‘Optimus Yarnspinner sighted in Bookholm!’ cried the first of them. ‘Yarnspinner back in town!’ yelled the next. ‘His first appearance in two centuries!’
I pulled my cowl down even lower and hugged the wall, but the little creatures simply ran past me.
‘Yarnspinner beats up defenceless puppet-maker!’ cried one. ‘Bestselling author wrecks shop!’
I crossed over, ran down the nearest side street and turned off yet again, but even in this narrow alleyway other Live Newspapers came hurrying towards me.
‘Yarnspinner wrecks puppet shop for no reason!’ cried one of them. ‘Injured owner permanently traumatised?’
Incredible how quickly false reports could spread here! I tried to kick the newspaper gnome when our paths crossed, but I missed.
‘Yarnspinner flips!’ another Live Newspaper cried from a safe distance. ‘Golden Quill Prizewinner beats up puppeteer and threatens Live Newspapers in the street!’
I hastily turned down yet another alleyway. There were no Live Newspapers in sight, but I could hear them shouting in the distance.
‘Yarnspinner runs amok in Bookholm! Is the famous author suffering from some mysterious mental illness?’
I SNEAKED BACK to my hotel, where I’d checked in under a false name, by way of the most deserted side streets I could find, intending to wait there until the rumours going the rounds (in the most literal sense!) had died down. I lay slumped on my bed, a prey to the most depressing thoughts, until I finally fell asleep in a state of mental exhaustion. It was late afternoon when I awoke feeling rested and refreshed. I debated whether to take my baggage and return to Lindworm Castle, but only briefly. Leave the city without having raided a single antiquarian bookshop? That was unthinkable! Besides, I would have felt mean, leaving the Uggly alone with her grief. My eventual plan was as follows: I would spend tonight and tomorrow in Bookholm. Today I could do my duty as a friend; tomorrow, preserving the strictest incognito, I would make an extended tour of the antiquarian bookshops. After that I would turn my back on Bookholm for ever. I was done with the City of Dreaming Books.
Having fortified myself with tea and pastries at a stall near the hotel that still provided genuine cups, not mugs made of waste paper, I set off for my rendezvous with the Uggly. Hordes of Live Newspapers were roaming the streets, but none of them was spreading reports about me. It seemed that news in Bookholm reached its sell-by date pretty quickly. A hectic and objectionable business, this sensational journalism! By tomorrow, everyone would probably have forgotten the incident altogether.
Inazia Anazazi was waiting for me in Revolution Square, as agreed. The festive garb she was wearing was in glaring contrast to her usual attire and at odds with the fact that she was in mourning and had just come from a funeral. From her appearance, she might have been going to a ball or a wedding. If the occasion hadn’t been so sad, I would almost have laughed at the idea that she had stood over Kibitzer’s grave in such a get-up. An Uggly’s taste could never be questioned, though. That would have been as pointless as criticising the laws of nature prevailing in another dimension.
‘Must I now beware of you?’ she asked with a grin. ‘You’re back in town and beating up de
I shrugged. ‘A combination of unfortunate circumstances,’ I said darkly. ‘I can’t say this city has ever brought me luck, but this time I really seem to have got out of bed the wrong side. What’s all this latest puppet business? The damned things are everywhere.’
‘Puppetism!’ the Uggly said mysteriously. ‘It isn’t all that recent, but I’ll explain later. Tell me something: until we go to the theatre and while it’s still light, how would a small detour appeal to you? What if I show you a part of Bookholm I’m sure you’ve never seen before? A sight few people tend to be interested in?’
‘Sounds like a contradiction in terms,’ I said with a laugh. ‘But if you think it’s worth seeing,’ I added politely, ‘there must be something about it.’
‘It isn’t far,’ said Inazia, ‘and we’ve still got plenty of time before the performance.’
We began by walking along a few streets reasonably familiar to me from the old days. Inazia told me of the depressing circumstances surrounding Kibitzer’s cremation and the bureaucratic problems entailed by settling an estate. Ugglies, she said, were always subjected to particular harassment by the Bookholm authorities, even in such a reverential matter. My own share of the estate, the big packet of letters, she had sent off to my address in Lindworm Castle. We then came to a district which I didn’t know at all but was pretty uninteresting because it consisted almost entirely of warehouses containing paper and newly printed books, and was almost deserted. I proceeded to enlighten Inazia about the incident in the puppet shop, so we were both up to date with each other’s doings.
I cannot say that this stroll was calculated to raise my spirits. To describe the buildings in the next district we came to as run-down would be a charitable understatement. Windows were smashed and doorways devoid of doors, nettles sprouted from letterboxes, wild ivy was creeping up the walls, and the roofs, which had partly collapsed, were thickly covered with putrid moss. Silence had fallen and the eerie hush was broken only by the croaking of some ravens. For no apparent reason, the buildings had been abandoned to dilapidation. This was exceptional in a city like Bookholm, where every square foot of living space was utilised and every vacant lot coveted by predatory property developers. A strange miasma of desolation hung over the area.
‘These used to be good houses,’ I said as we paused halfway along one of the deserted streets. ‘Why have they been left to decay?’
‘Nobody lives here any more,’ the Uggly replied. ‘This part of Bookholm belongs to the Magmass.’
‘The Magmass? Who’s that, a property speculator?’
She laughed. ‘No. The Magmass is a river.’
Was she pulling my leg? There weren’t any rivers in Bookholm.
‘Smell that?’ Inazia went on. ‘That’s the smell of the Magmass. That alone was enough to drive people away.’
Yes thanks, I’d already noticed the local aroma. It was a weird, wholly unfamiliar smell that seemed to indicate one was entering an exceptionally hazardous part of the world. The crater of a volcano, perhaps, or a bat cave. I felt uneasy – claustrophobic too, although we were out in the open.
The Uggly raised her head and listened. ‘Can you hear that?’ she asked in a low voice.
‘Yes, if I listen hard … A sort of gurgling, liquid sound. A distant roar. Is that what you mean?’
‘Come with me,’ she commanded.
How many times had I obeyed her brusque injunctions in the past? Although I felt more like a lapdog going walkies than a visitor on a guided tour, I obediently followed Inazia down an alleyway in which weeds and thistles were sprouting from the cobblestones. It certainly wasn’t a popular tourist route.
‘A city destroyed by fire can be rebuilt,’ said Inazia as she briskly forged a path through the weeds. ‘Rubble can be removed and ash buried, but some fire damage can never be obliterated. There are wounds that never heal. In such cases, Nature is best left to itself.’
I was beginning to enjoy the Uggly’s enigmatic blather. It was like going for a walk with a crossword puzzle or an oracle. Every problem solved posed another. That kept the conversation going without rendering it irrelevant.
‘Magmass … River, seven letters …’ I said to myself. I’d heard the name before somewhere. Or had I read it? I couldn’t recall.
‘Ever thought of becoming a professional tourist guide?’ I enquired with a grin. ‘Inazia Anazazi’s Cryptic Mystery Tour, perhaps? Every question answered with another? Flagellation with stinging nettles thrown in?’
The burnt-smelling scrub grew waist-high here. We had left the eerie buildings behind us and were now wading across a broad plain covered with the kind of scrub and weeds that proliferate on uncultivated land. There was no one around but us, and for good reason. What did she want to show me, her secret herb garden?
‘Stop!’ the Uggly cried abruptly. She came to a sudden halt and thumped me on the chest with her arm. If she hadn’t, I would have strode smartly on – and the next moment plunged into an abyss. Yawning ahead of us was a massive crater.
‘Phew!’ I said, shrinking back. ‘What’s that?’
‘That’, Inazia said with a smile, ‘is the Magmass.’
The crater was some hundred metres long and fifty wide, so it was more of a rift or fissure than the circular mouth of a crater. It did, however, possess a quality which I, for want of a correct geological term, would simply call volcanic, so crater seems to me to be a suitable description. Geologists are welcome to pour scorn on me, but I don’t, alas, have a copy of Meridius Pyroclastian’s Glossarium Geologicum to hand. The sides of the chasm, which went straight down for about twenty metres, were pitch-black like congealed lava and flowing along below, in a perfectly visible ravine, was a river.
‘By the Orm,’ I exclaimed, ‘that really is a surprise. A river in Bookholm! There wasn’t one in the old days.’
‘There isn’t one now, strictly speaking,’ said Inazia, ‘because that isn’t a river.’
‘What is it, then?’
‘Something else – something whose exact definition is still fiercely debated by the scientists of Bookholm. As long as the question remains unresolved, we call it a river.’
Cautiously, I peered down. What I saw did, in fact, bear little resemblance to a river. It reminded me more of an animal, a gigantic serpent, a monstrous insect, a gargantuan millipede or worm that was sluggishly writhing along the ravine. It was dark, almost black, and viscous as molasses. Boulders were floating along on its surface. I shrank back again. One push from the Uggly, one false step, one moment of inattention, and the Magmass would carry me along and sluice me into the depths. I had never wanted to venture as close to the catacombs of Bookholm again.
‘The Magmass looks different every day,’ said Inazia, whose fingertips were now holding a handkerchief over her nose. ‘Today it’s black as ink, probably because shortly before emerging from the ground it flowed through a seam of coal or an oil well. Tomorrow, having devoured and dissolved a few old libraries, it may consist of leaden grey papyrus pulp. The day after tomorrow it’ll be filled with hissing, smoking, incandescent lumps of lava. Ugly, angry and dangerous it may be, but it’s never boring.’
‘So it sometimes contains lava?’
‘Of course. It carries along anything that can be washed away below ground. Soil, coal – and, of course, books. More and more books from the catacombs. Sometimes half-liquid, half-cooled magma drifts along in it. Hence a part of its name.’
The Uggly indicated the vast chasm with a theatrical gesture. ‘The biggest factory in Bookholm used to stand here: the Timbertime Paperworks. “No paper burns for longer than Bookholm paper!” – you know the old slogan? That came into being after the fire. It must have been thought up by someone who saw the Timbertime Paperworks ablaze. Immense quantities of inflammable material were stored here. Huge vaults filled with paper. Stacked timber, whole trees, half a forest. Also combustible
The Magmass … Now I remembered! I’d read about it many years ago. The Magmass was the legendary subterranean river referred to by Colophonius Regenschein in his book The Catacombs of Bookholm, the mysterious labyrinthine stream of which the Bookhunters used to talk. Regenschein had mentioned it only in passing, though, which was why I’d almost forgotten the name.
‘Many people used to think that the Magmass was a myth, a Bookhunters’ tall story. No one would have believed that one arm of it flowed just beneath the surface of Bookholm.’ The Uggly gazed down at the foul stream in disgust. ‘And no one wanted such a thing in the city. It smells sometimes of sulphur, sometimes of oil, sometimes of camphor or animals’ cadavers, depending on what it happens to be transporting. The stench causes headaches, bouts of depression and panic attacks – sometimes all of them at once. An attempt was made to bury it beneath the rubble and detritus of the gutted city, and it looked at first as if that would work. One day, however, the Magmass was back. It had simply swept away the rubble on top of it and sluiced this down into the catacombs, layer by layer, until it was exposed once more. A second attempt was made with the same result. Then everyone gave up. The Magmass had the last laugh! It’s a suppurating sore that never heals.’
Inazia made her way along the edge of the ravine with me following cautiously behind.
‘This area went steadily downhill,’ she said. ‘The first to move out were those who could afford to, followed by those who couldn’t really afford to. It then became a rent-free district for the homeless, but even they couldn’t stand it. Better to sleep rough under the stars than in a house near the Magmass! Finally, underworld types moved in and the place became genuinely dangerous. But the polluted stream proved too much even for the most hardened criminals. Not even they stayed. Now it’s a no-man’s-land, almost like the Toxic Zone.’
The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes