The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.20Walter Moers
More and more multifarious puppets were assembling onstage. Glove puppets were singing in windows and doorways, and appearing from behind handcarts and piles of books. They strutted around in the street as marionettes or toured the set in the form of full-length puppets – in other words, puppeteers themselves dressed up as puppets. Within a very short space of time the stage was teeming with grotesque figures that presented a picturesque spectrum very like the real hurly-burly prevailing in the streets of Bookholm. I saw down-at-heel poets with unsaleable manuscripts under their arms, ruthlessly jostling Hoggling agents, hunchbacked booksellers toting stacks of antiquarian tomes from shop to shop, marvelling tourists bumping into lamp-posts, hawkers with handcarts full of books, roaming book advertisements, scurrying Live Newspapers, and here and there a masked Biblionaut in full armour. There were even a chimneysweep dancing on a roof and rats singing at the entrance to a sewer. It was all very meticulously done, I had to admit, and I might almost have been mollified – had the lyrics not been so frightful. The puppets had launched into a reprise of the refrain:
‘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!’
One moment! It hadn’t occurred to me before, but the words were mine! They were ill-abridged and garbled Yarnspinner!
‘Where books still dream of days when they were naught but swaying trees …’
Yes, that was my intellectual property, it came from … I gave a terrible start that derailed my train of thought. Why? Because of a monstrous development onstage: I myself had just rounded the corner of a building!
This subject – an encounter with one’s own doppelgänger – had already been tackled several times in Zamonian literature, dear friends, and it was usually a metaphor for the onset of insanity. I only hope, therefore, that the following remark will not be construed as metaphorical, for what came round the corner onstage really did look exactly like the person I sometimes regarded, not without a certain satisfaction, in the mirror: my own likeness! If you encounter your own likeness elsewhere than in a mirror, you’re surely entitled to doubt your sanity a little, aren’t you? For one long, terrible moment, the two monkeys from the trapeze act seemed to be tearing at my brain and ripping it asunder like their fellow simian. I had an urge to jump up, run off, sink into my chair, awaken from this nightmare, cry out, dissolve into thin air, and laugh and weep at the same time. Insanity must truly feel like that! In the event, I merely leant even further over the parapet, staring helplessly at the apparition onstage until my trance was dispelled by a dig in the ribs from Inazia.
‘Surprised?’ she croaked in a triumphant voice. ‘I almost gave the game away – I really had to bite my tongue! What do you think of the Yarnspinner puppet, eh? It’s fantastic – go on, admit it! You jumped as if you’d seen a ghost!’ She cackled heartlessly.
I had broken out in an ice-cold sweat. It was a puppet, of course, and the words were mine. They were putting on something from my oeuvre. I hadn’t lost my mind! My brain wasn’t being torn in half. I wouldn’t have to spend the rest of my life in a padded cell. That much was reassuring. I slumped back in my chair, fighting for breath.
‘The City of Dreaming Books!’ Inazia whispered, wagging a bony finger at me. ‘Your book about Bookholm – that’s what they’re doing tonight!’
The music was now reminiscent of Sweng Ohrgeiger’s spirited Atlantis Symphony, which had first lent artistic expression to the hectic hurly-burly prevailing in modern Zamonian cities. The orchestra at least imitated its unusual concept, which was to reproduce the sounds and motifs of urban bustle by musical means. Rhythmically plucked violins, clattering castanets and blaring brass underpinned the impression made by the shoving and jostling puppets that hustled gawping Yarnspinner (I had still to get used to the idea that I was the figure onstage) along the busy streets of Bookholm. Buildings sprouted from the floor of the stage or glided down from above as the Yarnspinner puppet tottered through this hive of activity, vainly trying to take in as much of it as possible. Inazia grinned at me, and I strove to relax by sitting back and concentrating on developments onstage.
Some Bookhunters came striding across the stage – life-size marionettes operated from above by thick wires and accompanied by terrifying blasts on the trombophone and thunderous drumbeats. Their get-up – from martial armour to fearsome helmets and murderous weapons – was extremely realistic. This was truly how they had looked in the old days, as I shuddered to remember. The marionettes’ robotic movements were well suited to those heartless fighting machines.
‘Now comes the olfactory solo,’ the Uggly announced casually. ‘Better blow your nose first!’ She produced a handkerchief and did so herself. I noticed that several members of the audience were doing like wise. The whole auditorium suddenly rang with trumpeting and sniffing.
‘Why?’ I asked. ‘I don’t have a cold.’
‘Can’t you smell anything?’ Inazia retorted.
It was true! It occurred to me only now that I’d smelt quite a lot of things since the play began. The scent of freshly baked bread, for example. Coffee being brewed. Crispy breakfast bacon. I’d assumed that these odours emanated from the theatre café and just happened to suit the morning atmosphere onstage. Was that what the Uggly had meant? Before I could ask, applause rang out. One of the smaller curtains rose while the scene on the main stage was still in full swing. It presented a view of a remarkable set almost the size of a single-storeyed house.
Was it a set at all? Or a machine? It could also have been part of the theatre’s heating system – I didn’t have a clue, dear friends. If it was a machine, its builder had a sense of humour, because I’d never seen such a peculiar apparatus. It consisted largely of glass and metal, flasks and pipes, test tubes and balloons, spirals and pistons, cylinders, retorts and condensers, funnels and countless receptacles interconnected in a complicated manner with tubes and hoses. Some of the containers were filled with liquids of the most diverse colours, others with steam and fumes in different stages of aggregation: sometimes light and thin like mist, sometimes black and thick as ink, sometimes pink and flickering, sometimes yellow and luminous. The liquids, gases and vapours were being pumped through the maze of tubes in so many different ways that this alone would have been a sight worth seeing. But the really sensational sight on this secondary stage did not reside within the crazy contraption’s system of tubes. Oh no, it was situated just in front of it: a Murkholmer was standing at a complicated console and operating the machine.
Yes, dear friends, your ears did not deceive you: a Murkholmer! You remember, don’t you?1 It was as impossible for a genuine Murkholmer to mount the stage of a Bookholm theatre as for a Bookhunter to be seen in the city’s streets, for both were illegal. The Murkholmers had played such an inglorious part in the machinations of Pfistomel Smyke2 that they were all banished from Bookholm after the Great Conflagration. This fellow on the stage could not be real.
‘Is that … a puppet?’ I asked Inazia uncertainly.
‘No,’ she hissed, ‘he’s the real thing.’
‘A live Murkholmer? Here? I thought they were banned.’
‘It really is a long time since your last visit,’ the Uggly whispered. ‘There have been a few changes, my friend. Bookholm is a tolerant city. We can’t afford to outlaw a whole species just because a few of its members overstepped the mark.’
‘Overstepped the mark?’ I expostulated. ‘The Murkholmers helped Pfistomel to brainwash half the population of this city! You experienced that yourself – personally! They—’
‘Calm down!’ the Uggly said soothingly. ‘That fellow on the stage wasn’t one of them – he wasn’t even born then! Relax! One has to be able to forget sometimes.’
I saw a few heads in the audience turn in our direction and heard someone shush us indignantly. There’s only one thing worse than someone talking
But the Murkholmer on the stage continued to unnerve me. Erect and immovable as a lamp-post, he stood there in the midst of a bewildering maze of pipes equipped with countless armatures, valves and cocks, pressure gauges and thermometers. In conformity with the unchanging dress sense prevalent among those weird inhabitants of Zamonia’s north-west coast, he was wearing a black suit which, like his flat hat, was in sharp contrast to his milk-white complexion. Fanning out behind him was a multiplicity of long brass pipes, all of which ran upwards and ended in butterfly valves that constantly opened and closed without a sound. Immediately in front of the Murkholmer was a stepped console from which jutted at least two hundred stops with porcelain knobs. These he operated incessantly, now and then using a foot to depress some wooden pedals in the floor. A Murkholmer! I still couldn’t take it in.
‘You’re in luck,’ whispered the Uggly, clutching my forearm. ‘That isn’t just any old Murkholmer, it’s Oktobir van Krakenbeyn, Bookholm’s finest performer on the scent organ.’
‘Organ?’ I whispered back. ‘Is that supposed to be a musical instrument? What’s, er … a scent organist?’
The Uggly gave me the look she reserved for provincial tourists who had strayed into her shop and stupidly asked for directions.
‘A scent organ is designed to set the scene olfactorily,’ she explained in a whisper. ‘It’s unique to Bookholm – unique to this theatre! Together with the music, it contributes an olfactory dimension to the production. Sight, hearing, smell! Even a blind member of the audience knows what’s happening onstage when the scent organ gets going. Playing the thing is an art in itself. There are seven scent organists in Bookholm, but Krakenbeyn is by far the greatest virtuoso. He designed and built that instrument himself. A grand master of nasal scene-setting! His compositions smell the best. Pay attention, the solo is beginning!’
While the street scene on the main stage continued with music but no singing, the Murkholmer did little more than pull and push the stops on his console and depress the occasional pedal. This he did with dignified stolidity, never once abandoning his grave demeanour, as if operating the furnace in a crematorium. The fluids and vapours in the organ reacted with remarkable rapidity: they came to the boil, condensed and evaporated, glowed and incandesced, hissed and bubbled. The valves on the organ pipes opened and closed too fast for the eye to follow.
Meanwhile, on the main stage, the Yarnspinner puppet continued to roam the streets of Bookholm, which was represented by the series of sets across which it trudged. Buildings, towers and walls sprouted from the floor or floated down from above, only to disappear in ever quicker succession. The drumbeats accelerated, the oboes and clarinets tooted more and more frenetically.
I raised my head and sniffed the air. It smelt just as Bookholm had smelt the first time I wandered its streets. It was redolent of the freshly roasted coffee beans which many Bookholmers liked to nibble from paper bags while reading; of steaming yeast cakes with lemon curd; of burnt toast and vanilla-flavoured tea; of freshly processed printer’s ink. Nothing remembers better than the nose! A whiff of lemon balm or tar or the scent of strawberries or new-mown grass are enough to catapult me back over the decades and into the past. But there was more in the air, much more! If asked whether I’d seen a tannery onstage, or a glue works or a carpenter’s shop, I would unhesitatingly have answered in the affirmative. I would also have felt convinced that the stage had held a soap factory, a waffle bakery and a barbershop, yet no such sets existed! The scent organ had only bamboozled me into thinking I could smell tanned leather, bookbinder’s glue and fresh wood shavings, also perfumed soap, baked waffles and aftershave. That was enough for my brain to imagine whole streets lined with shop windows and billboards that weren’t there at all. Olfactory scene-setting! Nasal architecture! I now grasped what the Uggly had meant.
I saw the Murkholmer direct a long, expressionless gaze at the audience, then turn back to his labyrinthine apparatus and very calmly pull out one stop after another. I was just wondering what sort of curious mélange of smells this would produce when an olfactory tsunami swept over me and the audience. It was simply overwhelming! We could smell chimney soot and eau de cologne, fried eggs and sweaty armpits, boiled milk and machine oil, cat’s piss and horseshit, camomile tea, burnt fat, the intoxicating scent of a florist’s roses, stale dregs of beer from the cellar of an inn, camphor and ether fumes from a pharmacy, toadstool tea and henbane soup from an Ugglian herbalist’s, pigs’ blood from a butcher’s, fresh newsprint, warm rolls. We smelt all the smells a person can detect in a city awakening to a new day. But there was also an unmistakable odour that existed in no other Zamonian city: the smell of Dreaming Books arising from the Bookholm Shafts. Inazia nudged me in the ribs and grinned. I was speechless.
Then there were the sounds! I mustn’t, dear friends, forget to mention the skilful contribution made to this synthesis of the arts by the theatre’s talented sound-painters. I deliberately call their activities sound-painting rather than background noises or acoustic scenery to indicate the level of artistry attained by its practitioners at the Puppetocircus Maximus. Hammerblows and pealing bells, cocks crowing and dogs barking, wagon wheels crunching on gravel or rumbling over cobblestones, birds twittering, children yelling, voices mingling – all these combined to form melodies and rhythms of their own that were in no way inferior in precision and harmony to the orchestra’s musical accompaniment. I was inside a huge, well-oiled, perfectly functioning theatrical machine in which everything, from the smallest prop to the last trill on the flute, was in its proper place.
‘What you’re looking at’, the Uggly informed me as quietly as she could, ‘is really only a fraction of the instrument – the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. The entire theatre is, in fact, threaded with a maze of pipes connected to the organ. It’s like the circulation of the blood or the nervous system. Concealed in the floor, the walls, and even in this box are very fine jets that spray us with invisible odoriferous substances. Kibitzer believed that they probably acted in conjunction with an additional gas capable of temporarily neutralising those substances and breaking them down. Otherwise, all that this organ-playing produced would be a portmanteau of a stench and probably unbearable.’
‘Kibitzer had a point,’ I whispered back. ‘He’s …’ – I stopped short – ‘I mean, he was a smart fellow.’
‘There’s even a rumour’, Inazia went on in a low voice, ‘that the instrument on the stage down there isn’t a real organ but only for show – a glamorous fake – and that the real organ is somewhere else and doesn’t look in the least spectacular. Furthermore, that the organist down there is an ingenious puppet, not a Murkholmer at all.’
‘What did I tell you!’ I said triumphantly.
‘It isn’t true, though,’ she retorted. ‘That’s nonsense.’
‘How do you know?’
‘An Uggly can sense these things.’
The Ugglies’ traditional killer blow! When they ran out of rational arguments, they came out with their mysterious sensory perceptions, their feelings and presentiments, their esoteric knowledge! There was no point in arguing, you always came off worst. At all events, I felt slightly reassured by the thought that the organist might not be a Murkholmer after all.
Meantime, the onstage action continued. My first sojourn in Bookholm was conveyed with due dramatic brevity, whole chapters of my book being boiled down into short scenes with no dialogue. For instance, the stage version of my encounter with Ovidios in the Graveyard of Forgotten Writers lasted only a few seconds. So did my reading of Colophonius Regenschein’s book, which had really taken me a whole night. The Yarnspinner puppet was shown buying Regenschein’s account of the catacombs from an itinerant hawker and perusing it in the street, whereas I had actually purchased the book from a shop and read it in a café. In this scene an immense backdrop the size of a house was lowered. It was painted with something
‘In days of old the Bookemists
concealed their books from sight.
They stowed them all in oaken chests
deprived of air and light,
then hid the books down in the depths
where still they dream today.
Their resting place is hard to find
oft seek it though you may.’
The recurring refrain was the same each time:
‘Hail, ye suicidal creatures
eager precious books to see!
Leather, ink and age-old paper,
That, of course, was plagiarised from Evubeth van Goldwine’s immortal last symphony, from which the melody for the ballad had also been borrowed. Although cheeky, it was well-stolen. If you’re going to steal, steal only from the best, that’s my motto too.
Then, on the main stage, the puppet finally reached Kibitzer’s bookshop. The music died away, the big curtain closed and that of a smaller stage rose almost simultaneously. And there I – or rather, my puppet double – was again! All alone now and only dimly illuminated in a sea of darkness. At once, piles of books sprouted from the floor and bookcases fraught with ancient tomes trundled forward out of the background. It grew lighter, but only a little. Clouds of fine yellow dust swirled into the air and then I smelt it: the unmistakable Nocturnomathian book dust that only the works of Professor Abdul Nightingale could produce.
The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes