The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.2Walter Moers
Cream was trickling from my nostrils. Leaving the window and tottering back into the kitchen, I tripped over a stool, fell headlong and pulled myself up by the edge of the table. All I could now make were the sort of sounds emitted by blocked drains or trombophones. In search of assistance, my tear-filled eyes lighted upon an ancient portrait in oils of my godfather Dancelot. It stared down at me uncomprehendingly. During his lifetime Dancelot had enjoined me to eat steamed vegetables and warned me never to bolt my food. Now I was only moments from following him into the world hereafter – far too soon for my taste. My eyes bulged still further from their sockets and my senses were bemused by an irrepressible feeling of exhaustion. A strange, contradictory mixture of panic and total indifference overcame me: I wanted to live and die at the same time.
It was in this of all situations, dear friends, when I was no longer capable of rational thought, that a fundamental realisation dawned on me: my success, my meteoric career, my life and ambitions, my existing oeuvre, my literary prizes and multitudinous editions – all were outweighed in importance by a breakfast croissant. For me, the arbiter between life and death was a cheap confection of flaky pastry, a mixture of common flour, sugar, yeast and butter.
And that, despite my dramatic predicament, made me laugh. Mine wasn’t a joyous, optimistic laugh, as you can imagine, merely a short, embittered ‘Hah!’. It did, however, suffice to remedy the disastrous situation in my oesophagus.
For, thanks to my laughter, the croissant leapt in my throat, as it were, and headed for my stomach with renewed momentum. This time it slid down with ease and disappeared into my alimentary tract in the regulation manner. The cream flowed after it, almost clearing my airways. Having coughed and trumpeted the remainder through my nostrils, I was able to breathe once more.
‘Bwaaah!’ I gasped like a drowning man who has just made it to the surface. Oxygen! The best things in life are free! At once exhausted and relieved, I flopped down on a kitchen chair and clutched my chest. My heart was beating like a corps of drums. Heavens alive, I had escaped a totally ridiculous demise by a hair’s breadth! That confounded croissant had very nearly ruined my biography:
‘Yarnspinner chokes to death on a croissant!’
‘Zamonia’s greatest writer carried off by puff pastry!’
‘Obese Golden Quill Prizewinner found dead in a pool of cream!’
‘Heavyweight among Zamonian writers succumbs to a featherweight specimen of the baker’s art.’
I could picture the headlines as easily as I could the critic Laptantidel Laptuda’s spiteful obituary in the Grailsundian Gazette. They would have engraved a croissant on my tombstone!
It wasn’t until I went to mop my perspiring brow that I realised I was still clutching the letter in my paw, claws buried deep in the paper. Curse the thing! Into the fire with it! I got up to hurl it into the fire, then stopped short. Just a moment! What were the words that had disconcerted me so? Sheer agitation had driven them from my mind. I took another look.
This is where the story begins.
I had to sit down again. I knew that sentence and so, my faithful friends and companions, do you! You also know what it meant to me, my life and my work to date. Who had written this letter? No, I couldn’t afford simply to burn it, even though it had nearly killed me. I read on.
I read the letter from beginning to end, every last word of its ten closely written pages. What was in it apart from that riveting opening sentence? Well, my friends, that can easily be summarised in two words: almost nothing. Those ten pages contained almost nothing significant, important or profound.
Almost nothing, mark you.
For there was one other short sentence of note: the one that formed a postscript to the whole rigmarole. Only four words, but they were destined to turn my life completely upside down.
First things first, though. The letter dealt with a writer confronted by a blank sheet of paper and suffering from horror vacui. An unknown author paralysed by writer’s block? What a cliché! How many letters on this subject had I received? Too many, for sure, but I had never read one that handled the basic idea with such a lack of originality and inspiration or was so plaintive and self-pitying, depressing and disconsolate. Even bleak pieces of writing can attain artistic greatness, but this one resembled the twaddle talked by a self-centred patient who happens to sit next to you in a doctor’s waiting room and bores you with his trivial aches and pains. The writer’s remarks revolved exclusively around himself and his physical and mental condition, his absurd problems and stupid phobias. As if they were incurable and terminal diseases, he complained of matters such as raw gums, of cutting his finger on a piece of paper, of hiccups, callouses and feelings of repletion. He railed against critical reviews of his writings, even when well-intentioned, and whinged about the weather and migraines. The letter contained not a single sentence of value, just banalities unworthy of being committed to paper. While reading it I grunted and groaned like someone toiling up a steep mountain path on a sultry midsummer’s day with a rucksack full of paving stones on his back. I had never before burdened myself with – or felt so annoyed by – such reading matter. It was as if the author were clinging to my leg and being dragged across a barren, lifeless, stony desert. Words like desiccated cacti, sentences like dried-up ponds. This writer wasn’t suffering from writer’s block! On the contrary, he couldn’t hold his pen in check although he truly had nothing whatever to say. In short, it was the worst piece of writing I’d ever read.
And then something struck me like a kick from a skittish horse: I had written this myself! I smote my brow. Of course! These were my style and my choice of words. These long, convoluted, tapewormlike sentences were mine. No one other than myself had written like this since I’d scaled the pinnacle of success. Here, a sentence containing seventeen commas: my syntactical trademark! There, a self-indulgent Yarnspinnerish digression on ‘The Perfect Breaded Escalope of Veal’! Here, a vituperative attack on literary critics in general and their doyen, Laptantidel Laptuda, in particular! There it was, the unmistakable song of my noble pen. At that moment I realised that it was years since I’d read my texts after writing them down. Indeed, I often gave them to the printer with the ink still wet, so uninhibited was I by self-criticism. It was a long time since I’d tolerated any editing beyond underlines beneath particular sentences and marginal notes such as ‘Brilliant!’ or ‘Inimitable!’.
And yet … This wasn’t my handwriting. I’d never actually written anything of the kind, I felt sure. Puzzled, I read on. No, dear friends, this letter certainly wasn’t my handiwork, but it could well have been, stylistically speaking. It clearly exemplified all my weaknesses. It even embodied the characteristic flights of hypochondriacal fancy in which I imagined myself to be suffering from diseases I alone could have devised: cerebral whooping cough and pulmonary migraine, fistulisation of the liver and cyrrhosis of the middle ear, et cetera. By the Orm, its authenticity extended even to meticulous records of body temperature and pulse rate! If it was intended to be a parody of my style, I had to concede that it was embarrassingly successful. The letter maintained its mixture of megalomania and petulance to the very end, where it abruptly broke off as if the writer had simply lost interest. And indeed, in recent times I myself had more and more often taken to ending my works in this slipshod manner.
I looked up from the letter with a groan. As a reader I felt betrayed and robbed of precious time; as a victim of parody, thoroughly seen through and humiliated. Reading the missive had taken me perhaps fifteen minutes, but it felt like a week. Did I really write such frightful, Ormless stuff? When I finally saw the signature at the end I felt like someone who, after years of imprisonment, looks in a mirror for the first time and sees his face disfigured by old age. It read:
Even my signature had been perfectly forged. I had to check several times to convince myself how well it had been imitated down to the last detail, the last flourish.
Was that the tribute I had to pay to my fame? Had I not shown symptoms of a split personality in my youth? I’d written a whole volume of letters entitled To Myself, but I’d never gone so far as to actually send them off. Heavens, my hypochondriacal fantasies were running away with me again! I definitely needed to calm down. To distract myself, I cast a final glance at the letter. Only then did I catch sight of a postscript written in microscopically small letters at the foot of the last page. It read:
PS The Shadow King has returned.
I stared at the words as if they were a ghostly apparition.
PS The Shadow King has returned.
Cold sweat beaded my brow and the letter in my paw started to tremble. Five words, twenty-four tiny characters on paper, were enough to disconcert me utterly.
PS The Shadow King has returned.
Was it a practical joke? What cruel prankster had sent me this rubbish? One of my innumerable envious rivals? A resentful colleague? One of the many spurned publishers who bombarded me with offers? A demented admirer? With trembling claws I reached for the envelope so as to read the sender’s name and address. I raised the torn paper cover, turned it over, and spelt out the words like a schoolchild:
The Leather Grotto
Then I burst into sobs, and those tears at last brought me the solace my agitated mind so badly needed.
1 Clavichorgan: primitive keyboard instrument manufactured exclusively for the inhabitants of Lindworm Castle. The clavichorgan’s keyboard has only twenty-four keys. Unusually wide and robust, the latter were specially designed for the Lindworm’s three-fingered paw. Music of true refinement cannot be played on the clavichorgan. (Tr.)
The Bloody Book
AT DAWN THE next morning I stole out of Lindworm Castle like a thief. I saw no one, supplied no explanations, provoked no farewell scenes – among Lindworms that was considered a courtesy, not an act of cowardice. If I say that I thoroughly appreciate sentimental scenes in literature but firmly reject them in reality, that applies to all my kind. It may be because we Lindworms can for the most part express our emotions through our literary work. In society and in interpersonal relations we’re exceptionally cool, composed and courteous – indeed, almost formal. Saying goodbye, especially for a considerable period, is one of the least pleasant things a Lindworm can conceive of. I feel sure, therefore, that my friends and relations were subsequently grateful to me for sparing them the embarrassment of a farewell scene.
I walked unaccosted along the deserted, dew-damp main street that spirals down from the castle’s summit to its base, passing shuttered shops in which unsuspecting Lindworms lay peacefully snoring. Having composed a brief, hexametrical letter of farewell during the night, I addressed it to the entire community by tossing it into the gutter. In so doing I was observing an ancient custom whereby departures from Lindworm Castle are poetically governed. The risk that the wind might blow my verses over the battlements of my place of birth unread, or that the ink might be obliterated by a shower of rain, was one aspect of this custom. We Lindworms may be an emotionally crippled species, but we don’t lack a sense of the dramatic.
It was getting light although the sun had not yet risen. When had I last seen a sunrise? No idea! I had slept away real life for far too long already. I felt almost as I had the first time I set off for Bookholm: overweight, worn out, world-weary, and in the worst mental and physical condition imaginable, but almost childishly excited about the events and adventures ahead. Isn’t that the definition of a fresh start?
Having left Lindworm Castle behind me, I traversed the barren, stony desert that surrounds it on all sides. I made my way through dense swaths of mist that looked like rain clouds fallen to earth. The sun had risen now, but it didn’t warm me. Again and again I had to resist the cowardly impulse to retrace my steps and return to the safety of my native mountain, which radiated an agreeable warmth because of its volcanic innards, even in winter, and exerted the same attraction on a Lindworm as a warm stove does on a cat.
Why on earth was I going to Bookholm? The city had almost killed me once already. I was a trifle overweight, true, but I could have remedied that by dieting. I was no longer a young, twenty-seven-yearold Lindworm capable of overcoming all his existential fears with juvenile optimism. I was far too sensible for such a venture. Or should I have said, far too old? Over two hundred years had elapsed since my first visit to Bookholm. Two whole centuries! The very thought made me shiver even more violently.
Is there a word for the kind of mixed feelings that overcome you when you’re on the verge of a long expedition but could still abandon it? Your mind seems to be split into two halves: a daring, youthful, inquisitive half, eager to break out of its wonted environment; and a mature, comfortable, risk-averse half, anxious to cling timidly to its accustomed surroundings. Shortly after I had resolved to christen this cross between excitement and loss of itchy feet excitrepidation, it evaporated into the fresh air with every step I took, almost like a mild headache. Had the spell of Lindworm Castle lost its hold over me at last?
But … Had I brought the indispensable earplugs without which I couldn’t get to sleep, least of all in a strange environment pervaded by unfamiliar noises? My tablets against the acidity that assailed me whenever I drank too much coffee? Enough money? A notebook? A map, a thermometer, an address book, some throat pastilles? My monocle, some pencils, a clasp-knife, eye drops, attar of roses, burn ointment, dental floss, flavoured whiting powder for oral hygiene? When I rummaged in the numerous pockets of my cloak and my travelling bag, I found some matches, three candles, a pipe and tobacco, migraine powder, needle and thread, a tin of skin cream, some bicarbonate of soda and charcoal tablets. Ah, there were my earplugs! I also unearthed Ringdudler’s Miniature Encyclopaedia of Ancient Zamonian Literature, some powdered ink, claw clippers, sealing wax, two erasers, postage stamps, cough drops, valerian pills, corn plasters and bandages, a pair of tweezers … Heavens, why would I need a pair of tweezers on a trip to Bookholm? Oh yes, at the last minute I’d fantasised about being afflicted with tiny splinters or bee stings that only a precision instrument could remove before they caused fatal blood poisoning. While rummaging I also came across a ball of crumpled paper: the letter that had prompted me to undertake this journey.
At last I came to a halt and endeavoured to calm my nerves. Yes, there was a reason for this journey: this letter, whose pages I smoothed out before refolding it. Had it come from the catacombs of Bookholm? Did it really hail from the Leather Grotto, the home of the Booklings, and did I really want to learn the truth? Nonsense! Not for anything in the world would I ever again set foot in that subterranean world. There were dozens of more compelling reasons for my journey! World-weariness, itchy feet, boredom, altitude sickness, obesity. Besides, I didn’t have a single reason to return to Lindworm Castle apart from love of comfort. This wasn’t a youngster’s headlong flight into the unknown, as it had been once upon a time. By the Orm, I was Optimus Yarnspinner, an established author with a solid career, and I’d thoroughly reconnoitred my destination once before. What could go wrong? I had taken far greater risks under considerably less favourable circum stances. This was just a walk in the park, a biographical footnote. A voyage of exploration. A minor research trip. A change of air. A piece of fun. And this time I would s
Perceptibly reassured by these considerations, I stuffed the letter back in my cloak, tidied the contents of my pockets and suddenly came across The Bloody Book. Yes, in obedience to a sudden impulse I had packed that too. Why? Well, in the first place I wanted to take it back to the city where it really belonged. Although the terrible tome had been in my possession for two centuries, I’d never felt that it truly belonged to me. I had plucked it from the flames and saved it from certain destruction, but did that act make The Bloody Book my property? I had no more claim to it than a looter who pillages someone else’s house during a disaster. I hadn’t even read the book, I simply couldn’t! Every time I ventured to open it, the most I could do was to read one sentence – I’d read three in all – before shutting it again in horror and leaving it untouched for years.
I wanted to get rid of the accursed thing at last, but I naturally couldn’t just throw it away. Immensely valuable, it came high up on the Golden List, Bookholm’s hierarchy of precious antiquarian volumes – indeed, it was one of the most coveted antiquarian books in existence. Perhaps I would find a buyer for it in the City of Dreaming Books. If not, I would donate it to Bookholm’s municipal library. Yes, that’s what I would do: I would add a good deed to the other reasons for my journey. Feeling suddenly relieved, I stowed the terrible tome away once more.
The last of the mist evaporated in the midday sun, whose rays were warming my face at last, and I strode on more confidently. Travelling is no different from writing. You have to get into your stride, but once you’ve overcome the first few obstacles, further progress is usually automatic. Not long after Lindworm Castle had disappeared from view, my mind was inundated with ideas for short stories and poems – even whole novels. This went on all day long and I kept having to stop to jot down the essentials in my notebook. It was as if literary brainwaves had been lurking beside the route from Lindworm Castle to Bookholm, ready to pounce on a burnt-out writer and inspire him. I was soon loudly declaiming verses I had composed extempore. Alas for the poor Zamonian countryside compelled to listen to them; I must have sounded like a fugitive from a madhouse! I didn’t care, though. I had made the right decision. A completely new phase of my existence was opening up ahead. Optimus Yarnspinner was rediscovering himself anew!
The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes