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The labyrinth of dreamin.., p.18
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       The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.18

           Walter Moers
 

  ‘The Toxic Zone?’

  ‘All in good time.’ The Uggly laughed. ‘You’ll become acquainted with it soon enough. It’s another of the city’s not-to-be-seen new attractions – worse even than this one.’

  I was now feeling really nauseous. My head ached like that of a migraine sufferer and my knees had turned to jelly. All I wanted was to get away from this stench, which awakened the most dreadful memories. Fortunately, the Uggly was now heading away from the crater and back across the field towards the city proper.

  ‘No one has lived here since,’ she called over her shoulder. ‘And because no one had to see or smell the Magmass unless they wanted to, legends became rife – glorified old wives’ tales. That the Magmass is a living creature. That it can think. That it influences the thoughts of those who venture too close to it. That it tries to lure incautious souls into its depths. You know, prophylactic myths for children, to keep them from going too near it. Not that anyone is crazy enough to do so, not even children.’

  ‘Apart from us,’ I said hoarsely. The foul air had dried my throat.

  ‘I only wanted to give you an uncensored view of the new city. Unless you’d prefer the tourist version? Shall I show you the side streets where the souvenir shops are?’

  ‘All right, all right,’ I said. ‘I appreciate your efforts. It’s just that I’m feeling a bit queasy.’

  Inazia made a dismissive gesture. ‘It’ll soon pass. The effect of the Magmass wears off fast, fortunately.’

  We tacitly agreed to adopt a brisk goosestep and quickly left behind the bleak, deserted streets around the Magmass, together with its cloying odour and the croaking of ravens. We soon heard voices, saw people strolling along and lights in windows. I breathed easier and felt better. Every additional step that separated me from that dark, subterranean river took me further away from the Labyrinth. And that, dear friends, came as a genuine relief to your harassed narrator, physically as well as mentally. It would be a long time before anyone else took me so close to the catacombs, that I promised myself.

  We now entered a city district where the fire must have raged with special destructive intensity, because although I’d been there before, I saw nothing I recognised. This had once been the site of Editorial Lane, which constantly resounded to the despairing sighs of overworked copy-editors, and also, just beyond, of the Graveyard of Forgotten Writers. There wasn’t a trace left of either. Their place had been taken by a modern quarter with brand-new, very plain and unadorned buildings and a completely different street layout.

  ‘This district is inhabited almost entirely by theatre staff,’ said the Uggly. ‘And their families. It’s like a city within a city. It doesn’t have an official name, but the Bookholmers call it Slengvort.’

  ‘Slengvort?’

  ‘The Puppetists have a professional language, which is passed on only by word of mouth, a jargon composed of various languages and dialects – still completely unresearched. They call this language Sleng. It has words for things of no interest to a non-Puppetist but of great importance to themselves.’

  ‘For instance?’

  Inazia didn’t have to think for long. ‘Well, for bursting a costume at the seams just before a performance: that’s called splooching. If a puppet’s strings get tangled up in the middle of a scene, that’s a noodlemesh. If a puppet makes a clumsy, inappropriate movement onstage, that’s an unskroot. If it’s made to bat its eyelids, that’s an okku. A member of the audience who gets up and goes to the toilet during a performance is a pissot. Too little applause after a show is krakki.’

  I laughed hoarsely.

  ‘One very important word in this language is slengvo. Slengvo means the state of affairs when a puppet comes alive – when it takes the stage and entertains the audience. When it moves. If it’s not in use and merely hangs on the wall by its strings, it’s niartslengvo or unalive. Dead, in other words.’

  ‘I see.’

  ‘At some point, Slengvort was adopted as the name of this district. It could be freely translated as Place Where Puppets Come Alive. Or Puppets’ Birthplace.’

  ‘Aha, interesting,’ I said.

  Somewhat more attentive now, I looked around. The effects of the Magmass had worn off completely. This vibrant district was considerably more to my taste than the ghostly streets beside that dreadful river.

  ‘Not only puppeteers live here. The residents also include stage designers and costumiers, scene painters and technicians, directors and musicians, writers and usherettes, lighting engineers and puppet-makers, prompters, cleaners and bouncers. They come from all classes of society: Dwarfs, Demidwarfs, Vulpheads, Trolls, Midgardians, Watervalians, Gnomelets – you name it. This is a pretty lunatic part of town. Imagine a few hundred highly gifted children whose bodies have developed but not their brains: that’s the population of Slengvort. It’s a big asylum full of harmless nutters. I wouldn’t like to live here. I need my beauty sleep!’

  Issuing from the open windows of the unpretentious apartment houses came loud sounds of activity. I could hear the chatter of sewing machines, the screech of a circular saw, a soprano practising her scales. Someone was playing the cello, someone else the kettle drum. Two laughing Demidwarfs were wheeling a mobile clothes rack into an entrance. Visible through a basement window, an actor wearing a death’s-head mask delivering a monologue from a play by Aleisha Wimpersleake. Children were rampaging around in the backyards, puppets hanging like washing on lines suspended between buildings. Some scenery painted to resemble a surreal, dreamlike landscape was propped against a wall. In front of it, two dogs were tussling over a broken puppet. Someone, somewhere, was ruthlessly trying out a thunder sheet. The activities that went on here were quite different from those that prevailed in other parts of the city. The place smelt of wet paint, turpentine and wood preservative, not coffee and books.

  ‘These are the earliest buildings in modern Bookholm,’ said Inazia. ‘That’s why they’re so plain and unadorned. Some of them were built of smoking rubble while fires were still burning elsewhere. They’re occupied exclusively by people used to seizing the initiative, improvising, giving each other a helping hand. There’s always something going on here. The theatre operates round the clock – it has never closed. Never! Six day-and-night performances in twenty-four hours and every one sold out.’

  I was becoming curious.

  If this to me wholly unfamiliar cultural attraction was such a success, it must have something truly exceptional to offer. It even boasted a district of its own!

  We strolled along a street lined with buildings nearly all of which incorporated small shop windows. Most of the objects standing or lying in these were timepieces. Pocket watches, wristwatches, wall clocks, clocks under glass domes, dismantled movements, cogwheels, metal springs, tiny screws – every window displayed the same jumble of little parts. I thought I could detect a faint, thousandfold ticking sound.

  ‘A street full of clockmakers?’ I said.

  ‘A street full of former clockmakers,’ Inazia amended, raising her forefinger. ‘An important distinction, my friend! The theatre is always engaging clockmakers to construct and service its puppets. Who better suited?’

  ‘They must be very fine mechanics,’ I said jokingly.

  ‘The finest!’ she agreed. ‘The very finest!’

  Turning a corner, we came upon a choral ensemble of eight Gnomelets in leather habits. They were practising a strange, melancholy song in a language unknown to me. All of them were holding up small glove puppets dressed like potatoes.

  I was wholly unprepared for my first sight of the theatre, which loomed above the row of buildings like a ghost, and a pretty massive ghost at that. All one could see through the mist was a grey silhouette resembling a circus tent, but it was the largest building I’d ever seen in Bookholm.

  ‘Good heavens,’ I exclaimed, ‘is that …?’ I was so astonished, I omitted to complete the question.

  ‘Yes,’ said the Uggly. ‘That’s the Puppetoc
ircus Maximus.’

  ‘Well I never! It’s huge.’ I had instinctively come to a halt.

  ‘It’s so big, it needs several names.’ She giggled. ‘Puppetocircus Maximus is the official designation, but who wants to keep saying all that? It’s a silly name – far too long and cumbersome. The townsfolk of Bookholm call it simply “The Tent”, although it isn’t a tent at all. The residents of Slengvort call it “Puppetholm”, but people of romantic bent refer to it as the “Theatre of Dreaming Puppets”.’

  I looked at Inazia enquiringly.

  ‘Well,’ she said, ‘there really is a distant relationship between the theatre’s puppets and the city’s antiquarian books. Both are wrapped in a kind of enchanted slumber when not in use, aren’t they? They don’t awaken from it until they’re touched by a living hand. In one case it’s the hand of the reader, in the other that of the puppeteer. They don’t come to life until they’re perceived by an audience.’

  ‘And become slengvo, you mean?’ I grinned. ‘Sounds more like a clever advertising campaign on the part of the theatre management. A cute fairy tale for tourists. Bookholm kitsch. Nice, though.’

  ‘I’ll forgive your lack of respect for the moment,’ the Uggly said magnanimously, ‘because you still don’t have the first idea about Puppetism. That’ll change very soon.’

  ‘Why aren’t I allowed to know the name of the goddamned play?’ I complained as we walked on, making straight for the circus tent in the mist. ‘I hate not knowing what to expect.’

  ‘It’s meant to be a surprise.’

  ‘I don’t like surprises either.’

  ‘Then you’re in for a tiring evening, my friend.’ Inazia laughed and took my arm. ‘A very tiring evening.’ She smelt of buttermilk.

  The Theatre of Dreaming Puppets

  WE CAME OUT into a big, cobblestoned square and there it was in front of us at last: the Puppetocircus Maximus. Even from this distance it still resembled an enormous circus tent with three peaked roofs, a big one in the middle and two smaller ones to left and right. On coming closer, however, I quickly realised that it was anything but a tent composed of thin canvas; it was a solid stone building.

  ‘Even the theatre’s outward appearance is programmatic,’ Inazia said eagerly. ‘Nothing is what one thinks it is. Cloth is stone and circus is an art. There are no certainties.’

  The Uggly’s enthusiasm reminded me that I didn’t really like circuses. They always smelt so strongly of large animals in need of house-training. There were also the awful clowns of whom most children were scared. Circus folk did idiotic, daredevil things and compelled animals to perform unnatural tricks to roars of applause from the audience. My heart sank lower and lower. How dearly I would have preferred to roam Bookholm’s twilit streets, which offered the kind of sensations which I craved! Romantically secluded bookshops filled with rare editions. Poetry readings, interesting people, lively literary activity. Instead of that I was going to the circus. Worse still, to a puppet circus. I sighed.

  ‘The stone for the building was specially imported from Florinth,’ the Uggly said proudly, as if she had designed the confounded theatre herself. For my part, I rather doubted the architect’s sanity. What was the point of reproducing an itinerant circus tent in solid masonry? The latter was a combination of red marble and yellow sandstone laid in alternate courses so as to convey the appearance of striped canvas. When just in front of it, however, I could detect the veins in the marble and the fissures in the sandstone, the joins between the blocks and the mortar that held everything together. This building was no more suited to travelling around than a mountain; it was an edifice intended to occupy this site for years to come.

  ‘Look down now!’ the Uggly commanded. ‘You mustn’t read the sign over the entrance or it won’t be a surprise.’

  I reluctantly lowered my gaze as we climbed the steps – an alternation of red and yellow slabs – that led to the entrance. We were surrounded by streams of people converging from all over the square.

  ‘Would you mind pulling your cowl down lower over your eyes?’ asked Inazia and promptly did this for me. ‘You don’t want to be recognised, do you?’ She presented the tickets and steered me into the foyer.

  The entrance hall, which was very spacious, resounded to the chatter of the theatregoers streaming in. The prevailing atmosphere was boisterous – more suited to a public festival than a cultural function. The laughter was as loud as the conversation, coffee and mulled ale were served, children purchased nibbles and sweets. Suspended from the lofty ceiling were hundreds of small, wooden, articulated puppets devoid of costumes. They all looked similar in an abstract way, like those that painters and sculptors use for anatomical purposes. They were the only form of decoration in this part of the theatre. The foyer was festively but discreetly lit by candles flickering everywhere in big chandeliers. The Uggly pushed me vigorously through the throng.

  ‘This way,’ she commanded.

  We passed a long wooden bench on which sat a group of puppets whose curious appearance attracted my attention. They displayed noticeably fine craftsmanship and looked valuable despite their obvious age and decrepitude. They were not traditional children’s toys, being far too carefully finished and detailed. Carved from fine woods or made of precious porcelain, elaborately painted and equipped with complicated eye and mouth mechanisms, they were attired in gorgeous costumes. They did, however, reveal definite signs of wear, were scuffed in many places or displayed cracks, fissures, tears in their costumes and other traces of use. They were unique – genuine theatrical puppets and much in demand. We paused in front of the bench.

  ‘Are these the puppets we’ll be seeing tonight?’ I asked.

  Inazia laughed a trifle superciliously. ‘No, they’re in retirement. They used to be the principal characters in plays that are no longer performed. That one is Professor Bimbam from The Legendary Professor Bimbam, and there’s King Carbuncle from King Carbuncle’s Lost Weekend. Those two are Veliro and Dyhard from Snails Have Many Teeth. Genuine classics. An impressive collection, isn’t it? Worth a fortune, too.’

  Her enumeration of titles and protagonists made me squirm a little. It reminded me that the puppet theatre was really an outmoded, positively ancient – indeed, almost archaic – art form aimed mainly at a juvenile audience. Something to which adults were sometimes compelled to go in order to keep their children quiet for a while. But I didn’t have any children! I feared for the rest of the evening. A combination of circus and puppet theatre? It couldn’t get much worse, but I didn’t show anything.

  ‘Do they just lie around like this?’ I said in surprise. ‘Anyone could steal them.’

  ‘It happens sometimes,’ said the Uggly. ‘A puppet disappears under someone’s cloak from time to time, but they always return it after the show.’

  ‘Stolen puppets are returned?’ I said as we walked on. ‘How come?’

  ‘Because people have a totally different idea of puppets after the performance,’ Inazia replied, giving me a mysterious smile. She paused in front of a wallpapered wall and took a key from her cloak. ‘In here,’ she commanded, opening a concealed door and slipping through it. Both curious and surprised, I followed her. Inside, a short spiral staircase led upwards. The Uggly climbed it briskly. ‘Our private box,’ she announced as we came out on a little balcony at the top of the steps. There was a hint of pride in her voice.

  I went to the parapet of the balcony and surveyed the auditorium. My initial impression was that it looked bigger than I’d expected. Far bigger.

  ‘It’s the same with everyone,’ Inazia remarked, not that I’d said anything. ‘No idea how it’s done. There are bigger auditoriums in Zamonia, but none that looks even half this size. These people really know something about creating illusions. Wait and see.’

  We sat down in the comfortable armchairs, which were upholstered in black velvet. Two pairs of opera glasses were lying ready on a little table between us. The fact that one of them must surely have b
elonged to Kibitzer made me feel a trifle uncomfortable for a moment. To distract myself from that unpleasant thought, I leant over the parapet and surveyed the scene below. The stalls were rapidly filling up with theatregoers.

  This was no normal theatre – that much could be said without exaggeration. There wasn’t just one big curtain, but seven of various sizes disposed in a semicircle. One was all of red velvet, another pitch-black, another of gold silk and four were embroidered with fairy-tale figures, musical notes or abstract patterns – not a particularly tasteful-looking feature. All around the auditorium, the walls were lined with tall mirrors that visually doubled the rows of seats and contributed to the false impression of size. The obligatory fire buckets of sand and water stood everywhere.

  What was genuinely impressive was the design of the dozen boxes encircling the auditorium, which were skilfully modelled on the skulls of mythical creatures. It looked rather as if huge dragons, horned sea serpents and gigantic gryphons were thrusting their heads through the walls of the theatre. Each box was individually designed and lined with black velvet, the balconies being richly adorned with ornamentation and gold leaf. The other boxes were quickly filling up too, I noticed.

  The ceiling of the auditorium was unusually high for a theatre. It could hardly be seen in the gloom because it tapered to a point like a circus tent. Plain but many-branched chandeliers hung down on long cords, casting only a dim light because few of the candles were lit.

  ‘The interior designer must have worked on a trapeze,’ I remarked with a grin.

  ‘Hm …’ said Inazia, giving me a sidelong look. ‘People here still attach great importance to the origins of Puppetism. Most of those employed here used to be in street theatre. Far from rejecting that provenance, they’re proud of not belonging to the established, highbrow theatre. Does that worry a successful winner of the Golden Quill like you?’

 
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