The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.21Walter Moers
‘This is incredible!’ I gasped. ‘It smells just like Kibitzer’s shop!’
Mutely, Inazia laid a hand on my arm. A candle ignited itself as though lit by a ghostly hand, then a curious figure with huge, luminous eyes emerged from the darkness: Ahmed ben Kibitzer, almost as lifelike as in real life! I would have been little less startled had his ghost appeared in our box. I almost uttered a shrill cry, once more aware of whose chair I was occupying. Tears sprang to my eyes. I made to jump up, but the Uggly soothingly gripped my arm and prevented me from doing so.
The Kibitzer puppet was really spooky, especially when one knew it personified the dead. It was operated by black-clad puppeteers equipped with rods, but they were scarcely visible in the gloom and one forgot them as soon as the puppet moved. It was a mystery to me how they illuminated its eyes from within and imitated Kibitzer’s quavering voice so perfectly, likewise how that voice could be heard in every last corner of the theatre as clearly as if it were whispering in one’s ear. It was as if he had returned from the hereafter to enact his role on the stage. One could hear woodworms munching away at the shelves and the humming of Kibitzer’s brains, smell mouldy paper and ancient leather. The theatregoers were quiet as mice.
What ensued, however, wasn’t a dramatic scene but some snappy, humorous dialogue between me and the Nocturnomath that had never taken place in real life or in my book. But that didn’t matter at all, because it not only epitomised the disputatious relationship between us but made the audience laugh. Its culmination was that Kibitzer threw me out of his shop. Even I couldn’t help grinning.
‘That was Kibitzer’s favourite scene,’ Inazia whispered beside me and tears welled up in my eyes once more. Before I could completely surrender to emotion, however, there was an abrupt change of lighting and scenery. Curtains rose and fell, and the Yarnspinner puppet roamed the darkened streets to music whose pounding chords on the piano reminded me of Igöri Iglegty’s disturbing compositions, with their notes like dagger thrusts. In a ballet-like scene, I encountered Bookhunters and other shady characters from the Bookholmian underworld and was marooned in the most obscure corners of the city, the latter being conveyed by grandiose sets that seemed to have been borrowed from nightmare paintings by Chicorigi de Gorio. Eventually, my puppet left the menacing shades of night behind and came to a brightly lit inn. The sinister music died away.
A curtain descended on that set and another immediately beside it rose. We were now inside the inn, which was occupied by numerous puppets playing walk-on roles. This was the passage from my book in which I met the scheming literary agent Claudio Harpstick and had a conversation with him that would later propel me into the clutches of Pfistomel Smyke. The actual course of events had been quite different, chronologically speaking, but that no longer mattered because I was now being carried along unresistingly by the dramatic flow.
Harpstick was played by a life-size puppet seated at table so that his body was visible from the waist up only. The scent organ was disseminating appetising smells of grilled sausages and bacon, roast garlic and pea soup, hot cocoa, and sage in melted butter. The illusion of a well-patronised eating place was completed by the clatter of dishes and the tinkle of glasses, lively chatter and boisterous laughter. A dwarf marionette even mounted a table and recited an extremely bad poem in a nasal voice – an almost exact reproduction of what had actually happened.
In addition to all the smells of food, the air was also unmistakably redolent of field and forest, resin, pine needles and wet wild boar’s bristles. This was quite subtle, because Harpstick had been a Hoggling and really did smell like that. Even as a puppet he radiated an impressive, almost intimidating aura combined, however, with boyish charm. I was struck by the convincing way in which his appearance and character had been captured. The Harpstick puppet sang his lines in a fine baritone voice, which I found a little bit silly and inappropriate for such a malign and scheming rogue, but the music was excellent and reminded me of Ossigichio Ronani’s comic opera The Confectioner of Ironville, so I graciously overlooked this. The libretto dealt in a humorous way with Harpstick’s dubious trade as a literary agent:
‘You use a pen but I use my nous,
I know when something’ll be successful,
I am the cat and you are my mouse,
reading itself I find too stressful.
‘I’m just an agent and you are a writer,
you are inspired but I go with hunches.
My fees make your pockets very much lighter,
You like renown, I prefer business lunches.’
That was how Harpstick loudly and confidently summed up his conception of the agent/author relationship. Not necessarily the best scene in the play, but it amused the audience and drove the action along. Harpstick ended by advising Yarnspinner to call on the literary scholar Pfistomel Smyke and gave him his address. Then the curtain fell. The embarrassing bee-bread incident had been omitted completely. Although quite all right with me, this was hard to understand; it would certainly have raised a few laughs.
A moment later I saw myself wandering through the city’s narrow alleyways on another stage. Would I ever, I wondered, get used to seeing myself onstage? I gave a violent start whenever ‘I’ reappeared. My puppet suddenly paused outside the wonderfully painted representation of a crooked old building. I could read the sign above the door even without opera glasses:
‘And this is my favourite scene!’ Inazia trilled in my ear. She had laid a hand on my arm and was gazing spellbound at the stage. Her eyes were shining with ill-concealed pride.
The curtain rose and we found ourselves in the Uggly’s antiquarian bookshop. Inazia Anazazi, who was in reality sitting beside me, was revealed standing in the midst of her Ugglian paraphernalia. I was enchanted! Her shop had been reproduced with such attention to detail, one might have believed that the whole place had simply been winched on to the stage. The scent organ was diffusing such a stupefying miasma of age-old book dust, wild garlic tisane, musky perfume and Ugglian herbal soup, it made me itch to bury my nose in a perfumed handkerchief. But that was exactly how Ugglian bookshops smelt!
‘The actress who’s imitating my voice spent a whole week in my bookshop,’ Inazia whispered proudly, ‘purely in order to study its modulations.’
That actress’s research must have been no enviable task, my friends, but it had certainly paid off. She had clearly been at pains not only to imitate Inazia’s voice as closely as possible but to reproduce the Ugglian concert pitch – that appalling form of vocalisation which is common to all Ugglies and sounds like the product of centuries of cigar-smoking, acute suppuration of the frontal sinus and a badly healed tracheotomy. She had succeeded admirably.
Wisely, this scene had dispensed with song and was accompanied only – if I’d identified the musical quotation correctly – by a few motifs from Gynasok Strivir’s ballet Devil Dance. At all events, the almost subliminal drum rolls and hectic xylophone-playing were admirably suited to the puppet representing Inazia, whose gaunt upper body loomed over the counter and was skilfully operated by concealed puppeteers. Its physiognomy had been only slightly exaggerated, for how can a caricature be caricatured? Indeed, it might even be said that this slight exaggeration flattered Inazia, because in this case a good caricature was more flattering than the reality. She delivered a brief but informative monologue that dealt with the superstitions of traditional Bookemism and not only cast a dramatic shadow over coming events but highlighted the Uggly’s prophetic abilities. Although this, too, had not occurred either in reality or in my book, it strategically paved the way for Pfistomel Smyke’s appearance on the scene and inserted a little breathing space between the musical numbers. I could see out of the corner of my eye that Inazia was fervently mouthing every syllable of her lines. She knew them all by heart.
The whole theatre went dark again. Although the orchestra could still be heard, it sounded as if the musicians were only tuning their instruments – a chaotic hubbub of scraping str
The typographical laboratory and Smyke’s house had been burnt to the ground, as had the whole of Darkman Street and the surrounding Bookemists’ district, but my book contains a detailed description of them. The stage designers seemed not only to have kept to this but even surpassed it in a certain manner. Their version of the typographical laboratory looked considerably more decorative than the real thing. Smyke’s hexagonal workroom devoted to applied codicology had been picturesque but chaotic, whereas every object here appeared to be in its proper place and perfectly illuminated by candlelight. Looking at this set, one wanted to move into it at once, become a scribe and dedicate a lifetime to graphological analyses or calligraphic calibrations with the aid of the Bookemistic equipment ready to hand. I knew enough of this profession to be able to assert that the props were not dummies but carefully assembled Bookemistic implements such as Smyke himself might have used: microscopes and magnifying glasses, letter counters and alphabetic spectrographs, ink thermometers and versometers, poetological tabulators and silver-plated septants. There was even an antiquated novel-writing machine and, of course, shelves filled with ancient tomes, mountains of manuscripts, bottles filled with inks of many colours, and armies of quill pens. Interspersed with these were flasks containing Leyden Manikins.3 I couldn’t tell whether the latter were real or puppets themselves, but they were certainly in motion.
I found it very alarming to see myself in this laboratory, if only as a puppet, especially as the orchestra – if my musical memory didn’t deceive me – greeted Pfistomel Smyke’s entrance with a rendition of the shattering fanfare from Smygort Messodusk’s Night in the Gloomberg Mountains. On that note, the biggest villain in my book entered the room in the flesh – and ‘in the flesh’ is really no exaggeration, my friends. The puppet representing the diabolical literary scholar onstage was so lifelike and realistic, I broke out in a cold sweat at the sight of it.
‘Pfistomel!’ I whispered the name so loudly that the Uggly beside me gave a start and several members of the audience turned to look. Smyke glided across the stage like a gluttonous slug across a lettuce leaf, humming and buzzing and cooing and purring his lines as beguilingly and ingratiatingly as he had in real life. The movements of his massive form, as soon as he began to speak, were accompanied by some gradually swelling music reminiscent of Uvera Miracel’s famous, light-footed Elfin Ballet, which was remarkably appropriate because it sounded a little like the hypnotic melodies employed by snake charmers. For what else was Smyke but a huge, dangerous constrictor, and a hypnotist into the bargain!
By operating his stops, the player of the scent organ unleashed a series of smells whose individual components would have been familiar only to an experienced literary scholar – or to someone who, like me, had himself been in Smyke’s laboratory. For who else would have been acquainted with the unique smell of the fibrous pulp from which deckle-edged Nurn Forest paper is manufactured? Of the ancient chemical substances used to bleach book paper in the Late Middle Ages? Of calcium sulphide solution? Who still had any notion of how papyrus smelt? There were also the countless subtle olfactory nuances of perfumed letter paper, of Bookemistic tinctures or the resinous scent of the sandarac powder which only eccentrics still use to dry ink, not to mention the stupefying vapour given off by fresh book glue, the animal exhalations of untanned bookbinder’s leather and the aroma of centuries-old sealing wax.
But these strange smells made a vital contribution to the menacing atmosphere of the scene and its unfamiliar, mysterious aura. If one could tear one’s eyes away from the sight of the main stage, one saw the Murkholmer organist on the side stage rapturously manipulating the stops of his bizarre instrument. He swayed back and forth in time to the orchestral crescendi like a sapling in the wind while his olfactory notes went fluttering through the auditorium. Now that I knew its purpose, the organ and its luminous liquids looked to me like the pipe dream of some megalomaniac alchemist with musical ambitions. An instrument of that kind really belonged in the recreation room of a lunatic asylum.
I took an apprehensive look through the opera glasses. The Smyke puppet not only withstood closer inspection but actually intensified my fear – and my respect for the puppet-maker! I had no idea what material it was made of, it all looked so authentic. The skin made a firm but spongy impression, like maggot flesh. It was slightly translucent, and one could even see blue capillaries in it. The fourteen little arms gesticulated in such a lifelike fashion, one could believe they were natural excrescences. Someone had to be concealed inside that flabby figure and operating it, but I didn’t know what kind of creature it was. Nor did I know how many of them there were, for a single puppeteer couldn’t possibly have managed on his own. I could detect neither wires hanging down from above nor rods supporting the massive contraption from below. A theatrical device of the latest type, it defied all the laws of nature and was a masterpiece of Puppetism, but I had no idea how it worked. Anxiously, I laid the opera glasses aside. I preferred to marvel at the miraculous puppet’s brilliant entrance from afar.
Fortunately, they didn’t spoil Smyke’s performance by making him sing, which would have ruined the scene and robbed the treacherous scholar’s character of its menacing quality. The silent horror inherent in his person was, therefore, able to develop as sluggishly as Smyke himself moved. I saw theatregoers fidgeting in their seats, simultaneously revolted and fascinated, as if uncertain whether to applaud or take to their heels. I felt just the same. It was like watching a spider spinning its web. You knew it was at work on a lethal weapon, yet you couldn’t help admiring its dexterity and precision. Villains are always the most interesting characters and Smyke was no exception. My own character paled into insignificance beside the charismatic scoundrel, and his skilfully made puppet outacted my own so effortlessly that I felt positively envious of a creature composed of inanimate materials, of wood and rubber, wire and glue. I degenerated into a mere cue for Smyke’s grandiose monologues, which constituted the literary highlight of the play to date. His insane desire to destroy everything beyond his control by means of murder, intrigue and machination, and his burning hatred for everything of no use to art and himself – all these were conveyed by every word of his hypnotic pontifications. This was theatre of the calibre of Wimpersleake’s historical dramas! Dialogue and puppetry, music and olfactory dramaturgy became welded into an artistic synthesis such as I had never before seen or heard, let alone smelt, on the stage.
The two puppets performed what resembled a very slow, old-fashioned, formal dance to the ballet music. Meanwhile, I was manoeuvred ever closer to the trapdoor in the centre of the stage until everyone in the audience must have realised that Smyke meant to entice his visitor to go down into the cellar with him. Down into the catacombs!
And here I noticed for the first time, and with some displeasure, that it hadn’t been like this at all. Large parts of my book were missing. They had boiled down my two visits to Smyke into a single encounter and simply omitted the whole of the trombophone concert I’d attended in the interim. That was a bold and brutal cut. In retrospect, th
1 See The City of Dreaming Books, p. 112. (Tr.)
2 See The City of Dreaming Books, p. 114 ff., the trombophone concert. (Tr.)
3 See The City of Dreaming Books, p. 101. (Tr.)
A Dream Within a Dream
ONCE THE STORM of applause had died down, darkness and silence fell once more. All that could be heard were the murmurs of the audience and sounds of activity from the stage area. Before long, however, my attention was sufficiently aroused by the appearance of something on the edge of the main stage for me to resort to my opera glasses again. It was a metal-framed glass receptacle with a flickering object inside it – a so-called jellyfish lamp. This was a lantern such as people often used when exploring the Labyrinth. Although the phosphorescent jellyfish inside it gave off only a meagre and fitful light, it lasted for as long as the jellyfish survived – which, if the creature was kept well-nourished, could be a good few years.
The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes