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The labyrinth of dreamin.., p.22
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       The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.22

           Walter Moers

  Soon afterwards, another prop appeared onstage in the ghostly light of this jellyfish lamp. I initially thought it was an untidy stack of books – until it started to speak unaccented, stageworthy Zamonian in a deep and resonant voice:

  ‘A place accurséd and forlorn

  with walls of books piled high,

  its windows stare like sightless eyes

  and through them phantoms fly.

  Of leather and of paper built,

  worm-eaten through and through,

  the castle known as Shadowhall

  brings every nightmare true …’

  It was a puppet! A book puppet in the most literal sense, reciting the verses with which I had prefaced the second part of my book. On closer examination I saw that it was composed of publications of my own: a volume of early poems, two volumes of essays, my works on the Orm theory, a collection of fairy tales and several novels. My own oeuvre in puppet form! I was entranced. Then grey dust billowed into the air and the speaking head, bowing in all directions to subdued applause from the audience, sank through the floor of the stage.

  Music struck up again and with it came noises. All one heard at first was the whisper of the curtains opening – one could hardly see them in the gloom. I cannot find words to describe the sound that then came wafting through the theatre, but I must try nonetheless. It was a mournful, high-pitched sound such as might have been made by some creature in terrible pain. If ghosts existed, they would probably attract attention in that way. Although I was firmly seated in my armchair, I had a frightful feeling that beneath me yawned a miles-deep shaft in which this creature was imprisoned. I turned cold as ice, and I noticed that Inazia was drawing her cloak more tightly around her. There came a low, soughing sound, as of wind that had strayed inside the walls of a ruined castle and was seeking a way out. The music was no less ghostly and eerie: now and then, isolated notes on the piano were struck or harp strings plucked like raindrops landing in puddles. At the same time, something in the middle of the stage slowly took shape in the gloom. It looked like a bundle of cloth or a heap of old blankets – until it suddenly stirred. Then a scaly, saurian head emerged from it. It was me! Once again, I started at the sight of myself. The Yarnspinner puppet was just waking up in the catacombs, crawling out from under its cloak and slowly struggling to its feet.

  So they’d cut several more passages out of my book, dear friends! The scene in Pfistomel Smyke’s gigantic subterranean library was entirely missing. My being anaesthetised by the poisonous book had also been left out, likewise my waking up in the catacombs in the company of Smyke and Claudio Harpstick.

  The Uggly leant over to me. ‘The treasures found in Smyke’s underground library made a sizeable contribution to Bookholm’s reconstruction and new-found prosperity,’ she whispered. ‘People are loath to remember that chapter in your book. That’s probably why the playwright left it out.’

  I brushed this aside. Although the cut verged on censorship, it didn’t bother me at all. I wanted to know how the play went on, everything else was secondary. While Yarnspinner was patting the dust off his cloak, his surroundings became a little lighter. We could now make out earth walls, beams, worm-eaten bookshelves with mouldering volumes on them, cobwebs, sheaves of age-old paper on the ground. Glowworms drew calligraphic curlicues of light in the air. We could also hear disturbing noises: a dull, throbbing sound, subterranean gurgles, a persistent hiss. The music had become some thing that no longer merited the description. It was more of a noise, a menacing basso continuo produced by the orchestra’s organ. In the darkest corners of the stage, behind the bookshelves and between the books, movement could be discerned here and there: sometimes a groping tentacle, sometimes the glossy chitin of an insect, sometimes a monstrous, multicoloured, faceted eye – but they withdrew as quickly as they had emerged.

  I suddenly felt as short of breath as I did during my bouts of asthma, which my doctor attributes to hypochondria. In my growing enthusiasm, I had almost forgotten that the bulk of my book was set in the catacombs of Bookholm and, thus, that the rest of the play would be so too. Things could yet turn very unpleasant, my friends, but I’d resolved to overcome my fears.

  I smelt worms. I smelt coal. I smelt mildew, wet rat’s fur and the nutty effluvium of the Papyrus Cockroach, which, as Colophonius Regenschein states, lives only in the upper reaches of the catacombs. I smelt petroleum, the fishy exhalations of phosphorescent jellyfish, the liquorice tang of black seaweed. I also, of course, smelt books in such diverse states of decay as I had never smelt since the old days. There it was again, the alluring and unmistakable perfume of the Dreaming Books – not that which pervades the streets of Bookholm, however, but the exclusively subterranean scent of the huge, dark repository of antiquarian books that extended beneath the city. It was only now that I took another look at the Murkholmer organist, whose subtle olfactory musicianship I now took so much for granted that I’d almost forgotten about him. He was impassively manipulating the stops with his fingertips.

  ‘Incredible,’ I said in an awestruck voice. ‘This is just how the upper reaches of the catacombs smell.’

  ‘That’s not quite right,’ the Ugly whispered back. ‘It’s how the catacombs used to smell. Today they smell of burning.’

  The melancholy background music that now struck up consisted only of some soft but endlessly repeated piano notes with rhythmical string accompaniment. Wasn’t this the moving Andante con moto by Zach Brestrunf? At all events, it was admirably suited to this phase of the drama, for now began the less felicitious part of my first visit to Bookholm – one that marked the all-time low of my life hitherto, dear friends! Betrayed and hijacked, a helpless victim buried alive in the catacombs of Bookholm – even a death march would have suited the context pretty well. The set was simple but realistic. Dark, earth-brown colours occasionally interspersed with grey granite: that’s what the walls down there really looked like. All that broke the monotony were some old books picturesquely mouldering away on rotting shelves. My character now launched into a rather silly sung monologue that somewhat detracted from the scene, which was perfect in other respects.

  ‘Alas, a prisoner am I,

  far from the sight of open sky.

  I can no hope at all discern,

  and do not know which way to turn.

  Accurséd be that poisoned book

  which me so far from daylight took!

  Why has that monster Pfistomel

  entrapped me in the bowels of hell?’

  … and so on and so forth in the same appalling style. I myself had never written such doggerel, even in the depths of despair over writer’s block. Still less had I sung it, dear brothers and sisters in spirit, especially as in this case the music had obviously been composed off the peg by some singerettist and was in sharp qualitative contrast to the classical quotations hitherto. I cast a sceptical glance at Inazia, who responded with a resigned shrug. At least she shared my opinion that this was the low point of the production to date. The scene soon ended, however, and its dramatic sledgehammer tactics had made it clear, even to the most dull-witted member of the audience, what had happened to the hero. Enough said!

  The very next scene delighted me so much that I soon forgot about the embarrassing warbling that had preceded it. The curtain mercifully fell and another rose to reveal a wonderful model of the catacombs. Or rather, of a part of them. It looked like the cross-section of an anthill, the difference being that roaming its passages were no creepy-crawlies but a tiny Yarnspinner no bigger than my paw! The little puppet made its way ever deeper down serpentine tunnels until it came out in a cave at the foot of the model. This gave the audience a very good idea of the ramifications of the Labyrinth, which were conveyed with great structural and dramaturgical skill. The curtain fell, another rose and Yarnspinner, a full-sized puppet once more, was discovered standing in a wonderful dripstone cave that occupied the entire stage.

  ‘It gets a bit silly now,’ Inazia warned me with a
grin, stuffing a biscuit into her mouth at lightning speed, ‘but I like it.’

  Eerie but beautiful, the dripstone cave was bristling with stalagmites and stalactites. The stage designers had striven to recreate the subterranean light of phosphorescent algae, so the dripstones, some of which were three-dimensional and some painted, glowed in a variety of colours like the late, demented oil paintings by Vochtigang Venn. In the centre stood a big, dark bookcase adorned with a wealth of carving and filled with ancient tomes – around a hundred of them. As soon as Yarnspinner entered the cave, these books came to life. Their spines started to wobble and jostle, but they didn’t stir from the spot. Enlisting the aid of my opera glasses, I examined the curious old volumes more closely. In truth, the ribs on the leather spines were opening up into blithely chattering mouths and expressively rolling eyes. The whole bookcase was, in fact, a colossal puppet. A puppet composed of numerous little puppets!

  ‘What passage in my book is this supposed to represent?’ I whispered. ‘The Animatomes didn’t appear until later, in Shadowhall Castle. And they couldn’t speak, either!’

  ‘It’s a symbolic synopsis of the chapters in which you roam through the catacombs,’ Inazia explained with her mouth full of biscuit. ‘You try to get your bearings from the old books in the Labyrinth. That bookcase represents the whole of Zamonian literature, which is showing you the way like the omniscient chorus in the tragedies of old. Delightful, isn’t it? An oracle in book form. It seems a trifle pretentious at first, but one gets used to it.’

  One of the fat old tomes cleared its throat audibly and spoke in a rumbling bass voice:

  ‘Down from the sunlit Overworld

  a visitor to us was sent.

  By fate into the Labyrinth hurled,

  he does his tragic lot lament.

  He has no compass him to guide,

  no tentacles and no antennae.

  It’s certain that, whate’er betide,

  the dangers facing him are many!’

  A smaller book on the shelf above continued in a much higher-pitched voice:

  ‘He must the catacombs defy

  sans drink or even a bone to pick,

  That’s quite enough, one can’t deny,

  to make a famous author …’

  Before the final word could be uttered, two ancient volumes hurriedly sang a duet:

  ‘Alas, alas, how sad to be

  abandoned in the depths of night.

  Poor Yarnspinner will ne’er be free

  unless he can escape his plight.

  The Reaper Grim his scythe prepares,

  the jaws of Death are open wide,

  wild beasts are lurking in their lairs.

  The books his only hope provide,

  but soon he’ll curse their bad advice,

  for him to stray they will entice.’

  Wherepon a whole shelf full of books sang the following words in unison:

  ‘Go left, no better to the right!

  Or better still, go straight ahead

  and jump into a yawning pit,

  for then you will be good and dead!

  Die fast, and count yourself in luck

  because you don’t a slow death merit.

  No Harpyr1 then your blood will suck

  and maggots will your corpse inherit.’

  The speaking books continued to declaim in this loquacious manner. I thought I could occasionally recognise the style and vocabulary of one or another heavyweight from the higher echelons of Zamonian literature: Ojahnn Golgo van Fontheweg, for example, with his know-it-all sentences and winged words, but also verses by Dölerich Hirnfiedler, the megalomaniac effusions of Eiderich Fischnertz, the preachifying tone of Akud Ödreimer and the sometimes involuntarily comical sing-song intonation of Ali Aria Ekmirrner. They all painted my forthcoming sojourn in the catacombs in the darkest colours and were unstinting in their textbook maxims and pieces of advice. So as to retain the audience’s attention, a glowing will-o’-thewisp flitted from book to book, illuminating the volume that was currently declaiming and changing colour each time. How the director managed this was a mystery to me. The jabbering classics then resorted to recommendations – nay, injunctions – regarding my literary work. In so doing, they became more and more vehement and eventually bombarded me with conflicting commands:

  ‘Turn out novels long and thick!

  Books with lots of personnel!

  Prose alone has timeless chic!

  Only novels cast a spell!’

  ‘No! Write poetry sublime!

  Put your verses into rhyme

  and they’ll stand the test of time!’

  ‘Write novellas, medium length,

  then you’ll go from strength to strength!

  Nothing’s better than novellas

  if you want to write bestsellers!’

  ‘Nonsense! Write plays that last for days

  and the public you’ll amaze!’

  ‘You crave literary status?

  Write an essay with afflatus!’

  ‘No! Write axioms profound!

  They’re the best things to expound.

  Churn them out and never tire

  if to greatness you aspire!’

  ‘Rot! Write satires bold and witty,

  criticisms devoid of pity!’

  ‘Why don’t you your feelings vent

  in manifestos vehement,

  fraught with malice, vitriol,

  and prejudice political?

  Stick them up on buildings tall,

  plaster them to every wall,

  but don’t sign them with your name

  and you will escape the blame!’

  ‘In hexameters compose!

  Better them than flaccid prose!’

  ‘Write of heroes of the past,

  lines heroic loud reciting,

  boldly slaying dragons vast

  and performing deeds exciting.

  Paragons of manliness,

  they save maidens in distress!’

  ‘No! Of death and devastation write,

  morbid readers to delight!

  Vampire bats and hounds of hell

  are the themes that really sell!’

  Finally, when the self-opinionated old tomes had harangued the Yarnspinner puppet into a state of total bewilderment – it was merely staggering around and uttering histrionic ‘Oh!’s and ‘Ah!’s – another curtain rose, enlarging the panorama of the dripstone cave. Into view came more stalagmites, more shelves filled with picturesquely mouldering volumes, and in the centre an outsize book that appeared to consist entirely of metal! It was standing on end, had a silver cover with gold and brass fittings and ornamentation, and glittered in the artificial lighting like the entrance to a treasure chamber. On the cover, where the title would normally have been inscribed, was a golden frame enclosing a curtain of beaten copper. It resembled the proscenium of a puppet theatre.

  ‘Goldenbeard’s Book Trap!’2 I gasped. It really did look the way I’d described it, except that this one was the size of a coffin!

  ‘Ignore that obsolete advice!’

  the metal book suddenly commanded in a robotic voice.

  ‘The classics will far from suffice

  to guide you. Better come with me

  and you will many marvels see!

  I am the future, no decay

  will ever eat my flesh away.

  Time’s insignificant to me,

  I’ll live for all eternity!’

  While he was speaking, parts of his ornamentation began to revolve and became enmeshed with each other, ticking like parts of a clockwork motor.

  ‘Decay? To me that word’s unknown,

  my heart is harder than a stone.

  Maggots and insects from me flee,

  of bookworms I am wholly free.

  You want these caverns to forsake?

  I will you to the exit take.

  The route to freedom I can show,

  so climb aboard me and let’s go!

  ‘Don’t listen to that book of steel!’

  the old books protested in unison.

  ‘It cannot love or pity feel!

  It has no soul, no mind, no heart!

  Ignore its urgings to depart!

  It only wants to do you ill

  and bend you to its evil will!’

  But the big book overrode these admonitions in a metallic voice:

  ‘Those warnings are a waste of breath.

  They’ll only lead you to your death.

  I am your guide, so come away

  and marvel at my puppet play.

  See the puppets, how they dance,

  how they fight with sword and lance!

  Hark to the music, feast your ears

  on strains that come from heavenly spheres …’

  Seductive, silvery bell notes rang out, playing a tune that reminded me once again of one of Evubeth van Goldwine’s immortal melodies, in this case his famous piano piece in A minor dedicated to a girl with a charming name. The copper curtain rose to reveal some Bookhunters made of silver, like the two-dimensional puppets of a shadow theatre. They proceeded to dance and thrust at each other with their spears. At the same time, the cover of the huge book opened and the Yarnspinner puppet climbed inside like the unresisting victim of a fairground hypnotist.

  Stop, stop, that wasn’t what happened – you know that only too well, my friends! I neither climbed into a gigantic book nor did it address me or swallow me up. Goldenbeard’s Book Trap, which I discovered in the Labyrinth, was made of precious metals and emitted mysterious music, admittedly, but it was of average size. It activated a complicated mechanism that set off a veritable avalanche of books and sluiced me straight into the rubbish dump of Unholm. However, the way in which the whole incident had been presented onstage – as a fight between good Zamonian literature and the cunning traps set by the Bookhunters – was naturally far more interesting from the dramatic standpoint, so I accepted it with amusement.

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