The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.19Walter Moers
‘No, no,’ I said with a laugh, ‘I enjoy light entertainment. What’s it to be tonight, King Carbuncle’s Lost Weekend? Spit it out, I can’t escape now.’
‘You’ll see soon enough. You’ll be captivated.’
The Uggly fished out a paper bag of wholemeal biscuits and proceeded to crunch them without offering me one. I spent the rest of the time leaning over the balcony and inspecting the audience.
They were a motley crew. Many different species of the Zamonian population were represented. Dwarfs and Moomies, Norselanders and Voltigorks, Druids and Hellrazors, locals and tourists, adults and children – the auditorium was packed down to the last spare seat. I saw some masked Biblionauts sitting here and there – an alarming sight. The barbarous old-time Bookhunters would never have attended a cultural function – it would have caused a certain amount of trepidation if they had – whereas these Biblionauts seemed to be attracting little attention, far less disapproval. On the contrary, some of them were chatting animatedly with their immediate neighbours – one of them even with a child who was happily laughing up at him in spite of his horrific insect mask. Most of the theatregoers were festively attired and conversing in polite whispers.
I felt rather ashamed that all those people down there were familiar with the evening’s cultural highlight, whereas I didn’t even know the title of the play. Indeed, I was probably the only philistine who had been dragged here against his will and hadn’t bought a ticket. That suddenly reminded me whose seat I was currently occupying. I rose to my feet with the uneasy feeling that I’d been sitting on a ghost.
‘Going already?’ Inazia said with her mouth full. She was strewn with biscuit crumbs. ‘You’ll miss out if you do, my friend. Why? Because the play is about you!’
I flopped down on my chair again. ‘About me?’ I exclaimed in astonishment.
‘Whoops!’ she said, blowing some crumbs in my direction. ‘It slipped out! I’m not giving away anything more, though.’
A play about me? Was the old scarecrow pulling my leg, or just coaxing me to stay? Just a minute! Were they staging a satire that made an idiot out of me and did she think I’d find that amusing? I had to be prepared for anything. Ugglies have a strange and sometimes inconsiderate sense of humour.
Becoming restless, I strove to disguise my nerves and concentrate once more on the auditorium, more particularly on the area above the stage. In an ordinary theatre the gridiron was usually concealed, whereas here the area above the curtains was open to view, though the dim lighting bathed it in mysterious gloom. One could catch only sporadic glimpses of sections of stairway and suspended platforms, ropes and wires, sandbag counterweights and cables, sometimes also of dark figures clambering around on scaffolding. The stage machinery seemed to play an important role and clearly required a large number of technicians who had to remain for the most part invisible.
At long last the signal for the start of the performance rang out and the hubbub in the auditorium died away. A resonant gong, it was struck a second time soon afterwards, whereupon the Uggly stowed away the paper bag containing the rest of her biscuits and brushed the crumbs off her cloak. ‘It’s starting!’ she trilled, her eyes shining like those of a child opening a birthday present.
A lively tune struck up and one of the smaller curtains – the one embroidered with musical notes – slowly rose to reveal an orchestra behind it – or, at least, what passed for an orchestra in a theatre of this kind. It consisted solely of musical instruments. Musicians had been dispensed with, because all the violins, oboes, flutes and so forth were clearly quite capable of playing themselves. I saw a string bass with mechanical arms and legs plucking away at itself, a drum beating itself, a violin bowing itself, a tuba blowing itself. The instruments were equipped not only with limbs but with mechanical eyes that rolled dramatically while they were playing, thereby reinforcing the illusion that they were alive.
‘The Doremifasolatidosian Music Puppets from Doodleton,’ Inazia whispered with a knowing air. She sat back contentedly as if she had supplied me with a thoroughly enlightening explanation.
I counted up to thirty instruments in this extraordinary orchestra and each of them looked so convincing onstage that I couldn’t tell whether the crazy contraptions were really producing the music themselves or whether there was a genuine orchestra hidden somewhere in the building. Dancing above them were funny little puppets in note form, likewise equipped with mechanical eyes, and wriggling wildly between them on strings were snakes made of music paper, which the children in the audience found particularly amusing. Before I could pay due attention to this absurd piece of musical theatre, I was distracted by the next sensation.
A gigantic copper chandelier with hundreds of candles burning in it was lowered from the gridiron. It was flanked by two large spheres covered with little facets of red, green, yellow and blue mirror glass. These now began to revolve, suddenly showering the whole auditorium with bright, multicoloured will-o’-the-wisps of light. But that, of course, wasn’t the true sensation, nor were the two trapezes lowered at a considerable distance from each other. It was the three monkeys who occupied them.
But – of this, dear friends, I was thoroughly convinced – they weren’t real monkeys. Never! Their faces were far too grotesque – more like caricatures of monkey faces – and no wild animal would have let anyone squeeze it into the fancy dress they were wearing. They had to be puppets!
When the trapezes came to rest above the heads of the audience and I was able to examine the creatures’ faces more closely through my opera glasses, I thought, ‘No, it’s impossible! No mechanical creature could have such a lifelike physiognomy.’
For the monkeys were grimacing wildly, opening their eyes wide, pursing their lips and putting out their tongues at people the way only living creatures could have done. Moreover, they now began to move restlessly, clamber around on the trapezes, do chin-ups on the bars and hang from them upside down. No puppet could have done that, it was impossible!
Then I had an idea.
‘Oh, I get it!’ I whispered to Inazia, feeling reassured. ‘They’re actors in costume. Dwarf artistes dressed up to look like primates, right?’
‘No, wrong,’ hissed the Uggly.
‘Not dwarfs? Not gnomes?’
I stared at her stupidly.
‘No? What are they, then?’
I looked more closely. ‘Oh, nonsense!’ I laughed. ‘They aren’t puppets. I see no strings. How can they be operated without strings? In mid-air, too? Puppets need puppeteers.’
She didn’t answer. I grinned at her.
‘You don’t know either!’ I said triumphantly. ‘Ha! You’ve seen this umpteen times and you still don’t know how it’s done.’
Inazia preserved a stubborn silence, so I redevoted my attention to the monkeys. Like professional circus artistes, they had set their trapezes in motion and were now, to the accompaniment of a dramatic orchestral crescendo, swinging to and fro above the heads of the audience. Then, at the end of one wide arc, one of them let go of the bar. To a roll on the drums and piercing screams from the audience, it soared through the air, described a neat somersault, and was safely caught with both paws by the monkey hanging upside down from the other trapeze. Ta-daaa!
‘Well I’m damned!’ I exclaimed, joining in the ovation. Inazia gave me another sidelong look.
‘They’re dwarfs,’ I said firmly. ‘Dwarf artistes dressed up, undoubtedly, and very well trained. A feat of athleticism, especially in costumes like those. Very impressive.’
The Uggly merely uttered a bark of derision.
The monkey acting as catcher released its partner in mid-air again. The latter soared back to its trapeze, pirouetting like an ice skater on the way, and clung to it nonchalantly with one paw. There was a brief pause during which the trapeze just swung to and fro. Then the two trapeze artistes regained their momentum,
The audience clapped and stamped their feet. This was trapeze artistry of the highest order. I was impressed.
Now suspended from the same trapeze, the trio swung back and forth. Then the catcher released the other two monkeys, which sailed through the air in the flying-angel position and landed safely back on their own trapeze, screeching merrily.
More applause, louder still.
This proved it. No puppets could have been made to do that. There wasn’t even a gridiron above them in which a puppeteer could have concealed himself. And even if there had been, manoeuvres and body movements of that kind were far too complex for any marionette to have performed them convincingly.
The next turn was heralded by another drum roll, this time backed by a long trill on the violins. Now one of the monkeys started swinging on its own, hanging from the bar while its partner remained seated above it. Letting go of the bar, it sailed over the heads of the audience, turning one pirouette after another, and caught the catcher’s paws with practised precision. The pair swung back and forth a few times in this position while the third monkey set the other trapeze in motion, hanging from it upside down in a catcher’s position.
The drum roll swelled. As the two trapezes swung towards each other, the monkey in the middle caught the paws of the second catcher – this time with its feet – and the whole scene froze in mid-air. The three monkeys were clinging to each other like links in a living chain suspended above the heads of the audience. The drum roll ceased and total silence reigned. Everyone was staring upwards.
But now the monkey in the middle started screaming. It wasn’t a joyful, exuberant scream of the kind those creatures sometimes utter, but a cry of pain. This wasn’t entertainment, it was agony! Being held by the other two and pulled in two directions at once was obviously hurting the animal badly. The audience grew restless and I gripped the parapet. Was this genuine or part of the show? No, it had to be genuine! A slip-up! Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure the monkeys were artistes in costume. But could they be real animals trained in some inexplicable manner to perform such unnatural feats? The screams sounded convincingly animal, anyway. All my enthusiasm had evaporated.
But neither of the other two monkeys let go. They continued to cling grimly to their fellow primate in spite of its spine-chilling screams. Their insensate cruelty enraged me. One of them simply needed to let go, couldn’t they get that into their little simian brains? Or were they smarter than I thought? Were they afraid of releasing their partner simultaneously and sending him plummeting head first into the audience?
The monkey’s screams had now given way to heart-rending whimpers and some of the audience had risen to their feet. I stood up too and would have yelled at the accursed animals, had not something happened a moment later, dear friends, which I shall never forget to my dying day.
The monkey split in half before our eyes – yes, it was literally rent apart by members of its own kind! The two halves of its body burst asunder with a frightful sound and blood showered down on the audience – big red drops of blood that seemed to me, at that horrific moment, to descend on the theatregoers in a strangely slow and unreal manner. I shrank away from the parapet, gasping for breath, but couldn’t tear my eyes away from the horrific spectacle. The other two monkeys swung apart, each holding one half of their partner’s body in their paws. Horrible enough though that would have been, dear friends, what I found almost more shocking at that moment was the fact that the Uggly had remained seated and utterly unmoved. Smiling happily, she seemed to be positively enjoying the incident. Was she out of her mind?
The monkeys swung back, laden with their frightful burdens. Then, swinging forward again, they converged on the point where the terrible incident had occurred – and the two body parts were reunited! With an audible metallic click they snapped together like the components of a constructional toy and all at once the dismembered monkey was whole once more! It even emitted a bleating chimpanzee laugh. A buzz of astonishment ran round the auditorium.
For a few moments the three artistes remained suspended in the air, a curious garland of monkeys and trapezes outlined against the big top and backed by another roll on the drums. Then the catcher monkey let go, the other two swung back, then forward, and the miraculously reconstituted trapeze artiste, having performed an immaculate triple somersault, soared into the catcher’s grasp.
Breathless silence in the auditorium.
I tottered back to the parapet, weak at the knees. I was still convinced that I had witnessed an inexplicable marvel until one of the drops of blood came floating very slowly down in front of me and landed on the edge of the box. It was a red rose petal.
Inazia was grinning broadly at me. ‘Dwarfs, eh?’ she said.
A triple fanfare, deafening applause, enthusiastic cries from the audience.
I was utterly overwhelmed, dear friends!
‘A conjuring trick!’ I exclaimed in relief. ‘The best I’ve ever seen and the best trapeze act as well!’ I applauded wildly and whistled through my teeth. The spectators were chattering like a flock of startled geese, but isolated guffaws could also be heard.
The puppet orchestra had now launched into a reprise of the lively tune it had played at the beginning, probably in order to pacify a few sobbing children and indignant mothers in the audience. To more loud applause, the monkeys and their trapezes were hauled upwards. As they ascended, one of the animals removed his head and handed it to his partner, who stared at it briefly and uncomprehendingly. Before he could give it back, they disappeared into the darkness beneath the big top.
‘Incredible,’ I gasped as I resumed my seat. ‘So they really are puppets beyond a doubt! But they aren’t ordinary marionettes. There aren’t any strings – they aren’t operated by invisible, airborne puppeteers. They move by themselves! How can that be?’
‘Puppetism!’ the Uggly said proudly.
‘Just a minute,’ I protested. ‘Is that your only explanation? Puppetism? One word? How, pray, can a puppet …’
There was another resounding gong note and the Uggly said ‘Ssh!’ I fell silent perforce and redirected my attention to what was happening in the auditorium.
THE MUSIC STRUCK up again and the largest curtain slowly rose while the curtain above the puppet orchestra was lowered, doubtless so as not to divert attention from the main attraction. The murmurs in the auditorium died away, to be replaced by a sound of lively birdsong.
The stage set represented a street of picturesquely weatherworn old houses above which a prettily painted sun was rising from the mist. The transition from semi-darkness to light, combined with the music, which resembled a suite by Gravid Greed, conveyed the awakening of a new day. It was, therefore, a morning scene. Some of the buildings were clearly bookshops or antiquarian bookshops with piles of books outside them. One moment, though, I actually knew this street! I had immediately been struck by its architectural peculiarities, all of which had some connection with antiquarian printed matter: a roof resembling an upturned open book, bricks in book form and so on. It was surely … yes, exactly: the street in which Ahmed ben Kibitzer had had his shop! It was Colophonius Regenschein Lane, site of some of the most popular antiquarian bookshops and one of the city’s classic attractions that had luckily survived the Great Conflagration unscathed. Well, well, so the play was set in Bookholm. The street had indeed been well conveyed – or, to put it somewhat more aptly: it had been perfectly reproduced down to the smallest detail. Every window frame, every roof tile, every doorknob seemed to have been accurately copied. An extraordinarily elaborate set for a puppet theatre.
Suddenly, a first-floor window in one of the houses was flung open and a puppet with dishevelled hair – it closely resembled an Uggly – looked out. To a few guffaws from the audience, it proceeded to sing in a hoarse voice:
‘Bookholm, city of dreaming books!
Bookholm, city of starving writers!
Bookholm, city of coloured lights!’
A second window burst open and a Demidwarf puppet leant out and bawled:
‘Bookholm, in thee alone the Orm
still burns in uncorrupted form.
Bookholm, the one and only pure
and perfect source of lit’rature!’
A third, fourth and fifth window opened. More puppets appeared and sang at the top of their voices:
‘Bookholm, where books still dream of days
when they were naught but swaying trees,
Bookholm, where poets dream of times
when every line they think of rhymes!’
I squirmed in my armchair. What awful lyrics and why were they singing them? This was a singeretta, of all things! Also known, derogatively, as a yodeletta or moron’s opera, in other words, a piece of popular literature set to trivial music and adapted for the stage – certainly not one of my own favourite art forms, dear friends! Most singerettas were churned out by mass producers who brutalised the original literary material and mercilessly boiled it down to a handful of ill-rhymed little songs designed to be inflicted on crowds of easily impressed pleasure seekers who had strayed into a singeretta tourist trap – just as I had! Damn it! I should have known there was a snag to the evening! I would now be bawled at for two hours by singing puppets that mangled some unfortunate author’s work three times over. Great! That came of trusting the cultural taste of a Bookemistic Uggly. Someone who foretold the future from toad shit! Who drank her own urine by the light of the full moon! Ugglies did that sort of thing! And to think I’d allowed such an esoteric poison pill to spoil my evening in a city brimming with interesting cultural offerings! I mechanically chewed my thumbnail (as I always do when something annoys me – I simply can’t help it). Curses! I was stuck there for the first act, but I might be able to decamp during the interval – to feign some indisposition or something. Lying was my profession, after all.
The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes