The labyrinth of dreamin.., p.23
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       The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.23

           Walter Moers
 

  Scarcely had the cover closed over the puppet when the book descended into the ground and the stage went dark. The sound effects technicians must have used every available drum and thunder sheet to create the cacophony of rumbling and banging and rattling that ensued. But what was the matter with my chair? I suddenly had the utmost difficulty in keeping my seat, it was juddering around so violently.

  ‘Is this an earthquake?’ I exclaimed in dismay.

  ‘It’s all included in the price of the ticket,’ Inazia told me with a grin. She was being thrown around like me. ‘It gives you quite a shock the first time. The whole theatre is one big machine. Just wait, though. This is only the start, my friend!’

  Now I understood: every member of the audience was intended to experience in person my slither through the catacombs’ dark digestive system, which was why the ingenious theatre machinery was shaking all the seats. What an elaborate set-up! One or two theatregoers screamed, but before any real panic could break out among the children in the audience, the frenetic music and the rumbling and thundering and shaking ceased. It grew lighter, the biggest curtain rose with a swishing sound and we were confronted by a sea. A stormy sea composed entirely of mouldering books.

  ‘The rubbish dump of Unholm,’ I whispered. Yes, dear readers, it was just as I remembered it: a frozen sea of old, mouldering paper, billows and troughs of book dust with foaming crests of tattered leather. And in the midst of it, with a dark void overhead: myself, now a tiny puppet once more. The audience had hardly absorbed this impressive spectacle when another menacing sound was heard. At first no more than a dull but gradually swelling roar, it seemed to be rising inexorably from the bottom of the sea of books. And then, from the midst of the rubbish dump, something gigantic emerged: the huge bookworm, the subterranean ruler of Unholm! In an explosion of book dust and fragments of paper, the massive body broke surface like a whale. With a bestial roar, it reared up until, within a moment or two, its head brushed the ceiling of the theatre. But it, too, was a puppet suspended on invisible ropes and operated by internal machinery. I had no idea how this was done, nor – at that moment – did I want to know. Gaping at the upper extremity of the monstrous bookworm was a fleshy, circular mouth armed with whole clusters of yellow teeth as long and sharp as sabres. Magnify a plump maggot a thousandfold, my friends, and furnish it with the poisonous fangs of a hundred snakes and the warts of a thousand toads, and you’ll get a rough idea of the gigantic creature that was now looming over the audience. It remained poised like that – for an eternity, it seemed – as though waiting for the right moment to hurl itself at the auditorium and crush and devour its occupants. The whole theatre was filled with a pestilential stench of putrefaction.

  The puppet that represented me in this infernal scene was lost from my view in billowing dust. However, another curtain rose beside this stage to reveal an enlarged detail of the same scene – a simple but highly effective theatrical device! There, a considerably larger Yarnspinner could be seen in close-up, desperately struggling through a sea of rubbish from which frightful denizens of the catacombs were emerging. I squirmed in my seat and drew my cloak more tightly around me.

  Let us be honest, dear friends: any reasonably sane individual is scared of creepy-crawlies, no? Only anteaters, entomologists and totally insensitive lumberjacks are unafraid of creatures with more than four legs. When the outsize bloodsuckers infesting the rubbish dump of Unholm awoke and crawled out of the literary detritus with their groping antennae, scrabbling legs and lashing probosces – when their glossy black chitinous armour, clattering pincers and iridescent, faceted eyes came into view – pandemonium broke out in the theatre even though they were really just puppets. Children wept, mothers soothed their frightened offspring, and adult males squealed and climbed on their seats. I saw raw-boned Turnipheads quit the auditorium in tears! Meanwhile, my puppet bravely continued to fight his way through hordes of outsize beetles, spiders, millipedes and earwigs. I could feel sweat oozing from every pore of my body. That was just how it had been. I even saw the gigantic, white-haired spider that had haunted my nightmares ever since.

  ‘This is the part where I always look away,’ Inazia confessed, covering her eyes with her spindly fingers. ‘Tell me when it’s over.’

  Personally, I devoted my full attention to the horrific scene. At its mercy but avid at the same time, I followed it with my eyes, ears and nose, utterly overwhelmed by the sight and my own memories. The music had now attained a wholly independent quality free from any form of plagiarism. It was like the background music to a nightmare created by the dreaming brain of a brilliant musician exempt from all the usual laws of composition. I heard harmonies and dissonances every note of which captured the essence of the horror but lent it a fascination that rendered it bearable. Frisson after frisson ran down my spine, but in an agreeable and wonderful way. It was the same as in my childhood, when my godfather Dancelot used to read me bedtime stories. Although tightly swathed in my bedclothes, I would shiver like a patient with fever when Dancelot, in his booming bass voice, read me tales of monsters and hair-raising feats of heroism. As I gradually drifted from the world of wakefulness into the world of dreams, I began to spin out what I’d heard, further and further, and continue it in my dreams. To me, that state is the epitome of my childhood, the early seed from which my literary activities grew. I was reminded of some lines from a poem by Perla la Gadeon:

  All that we see or seem

  is but a dream within a dream.

  That was just how I felt at this moment: like a ghostly visitor inside my own head. Like a dreamer in a dream witnessing his worst nightmares. How often since then, during the little sleep still granted me, had I already been haunted by the frightful memory of that sea of books in Unholm? It was as if the whole theatre had been transformed into a monstrous version of my skull, into which the audience could see as if peering into a bell jar. I shared the feverish excitement of the little puppet wading through the loathsome rubbish, even though I knew the story had a happy ending. But, like a dreamer, I’d forgotten that this was a dream. Yes, it all had enthralled me so much, I’d forgotten that I myself was the figure on the stage!

  The harassed audience emitted a collective sound of relief – a mixture of gasps and sighs – when the Yarnspinner puppet finally reached terra firma on the edge of the stage. With an ear-splitting roar, the gigantic bookworm reared up once more, then collapsed with a crash reminiscent of a mammoth tree being felled. Boom! Dense clouds of book dust billowed into the air and the clicking, crepitating insects vanished into the gloom.

  It was a relief when the curtain fell and the music died away. There was no applause this time. Nonsensically, I patted my cloak as if it were infested with cockroaches.

  ‘It’s over,’ I said, genuinely relieved.

  ‘Not bad for a puppet theatre, eh?’ the Uggly said with a grin. She also brushed some non-existent insects off her clothing.

  ‘No,’ I replied in a daze, ‘that was … not bad at all.’

  For a while I sat there without moving and devoted scant attention to the scene that followed. Less than dramatic, it showed Yarnspinner bemoaning his fate in song. That the next two major episodes in my book had simply been cut may have been attributable to the intensity of the previous scene. If you don’t want to play to an empty house, you can’t afford to give the audience too much horror all at once. At all events, my encounters with Hunk Hoggno and the many-legged Spinxxxes3 weren’t shown onstage, and I can’t say I missed them. Instead, Yarnspinner came upon a mysterious trail of slips of paper that glowed magically in the dark and led him ever deeper into the Labyrinth until – yes, dear friends, I can’t put it any other way – there was a sudden smell of Booklings!

  Of that there could be no doubt. Booklings smell quite unmistakable. I could distinguish a Bookling from a hundred other creatures by its body odour alone. It smells a little like mushrooms after an autumnal shower. A little like freshly dubbined boots. Like rosemary,
but only very faintly. Like ancient paper too, of course, but positively overpoweringly of bitter almonds. Yes, of bitter almonds, that appetising aroma often imparted to marzipan and sweet pastries. Bitter almonds are not, of course, native to the catacombs because they need sunlight in order to grow. But there exists in nearly all parts of the catacombs a phosphorescent fungus which, although an excellent provider of subdued lighting, is extremely hazardous to health. Its smell bears a remarkable resemblance to that of bitter almonds. If one eats it, however, it proves to be sadly indigestible. As soon as it reaches the stomach, the fungus proceeds to devour its host, whether rat, Bookhunter or Spinxxx, from the inside outwards. This makes it one of the most feared denizens of the catacombs. The aroma of bitter almonds that we inhabitants of Overworld find so appetising indicates to most creatures in the Labyrinth that the fungus is dangerous and causes them, in obedience to the instinct for self-preservation, to give it a wide berth. How the Booklings contrive to smell of this fungus is still unexplained. Is it a natural component of their body odour, or do they use a perfume obtained from it by chemical means? The only certainty is that this olfactory mimicry is an effective protection against being eaten. Whether or not it would really be dangerous to devour a Bookling is a subject still in need of scientific clarification.

  So the Puppetocircus Maximus smelt of Booklings beyond doubt! Only a few moments later, whole hordes of those legendary, one-eyed residents of the catacombs thronged the stage. Or rather, the stages, for all the curtains had risen in order to provide an adequate representation of the new scene: the Leather Grotto and its immediate vicinity. Here was the subterranean home of the Booklings at last! I had been waiting on tenterhooks to see this set, and my hopes were not dashed. There were caves of the most diverse kinds, large and small, some displaying stalactites, others shimmering crystals. Some were festively illuminated by candles, others by the multicoloured light of phosphorescent plants. One cave was lit by the red glow from a pool of lava. And all this one saw at a glance, spread out across the various stages. There were books wherever one looked, piled high or in lopsided, worm-eaten bookcases, in stacks large and small, in barrels and chests, on handcarts and in baskets. The floor was strewn with manuscripts and the stalactites sprouting from the roofs of the caves were papered with book jackets. And milling around everywhere were Booklings of every shape, colour and size that this most remarkable of subterranean species is capable of adopting.

  Well, before I become overly sentimental, dear friends, I will somewhat condense my synopsis of the play – inevitably so, because although my encounter with the Booklings took some time and was portrayed onstage with the greatest attention to detail, it contributed no more to the plot, from the purely dramaturgical aspect, than the corresponding chapter in my book. The ensuing scenes were islands of calm in a surging sea, oases of comfort in a storm-lashed desert, balm to the theatregoers’ troubled souls. They were a relaxing series of delightful, comical ballet and choral numbers, all accompanied by wonderful, foot-tapping music. The children in the audience, as well as those adults who had remained children at heart, laughed and crowed and applauded more exuberantly than ever before. They had forgotten the recent horrific incidents as quickly as I myself had. This was entertainment in the best sense: it helped one to forget one’s fear.

  Some of the Booklings were played by marionettes on strings manipulated from above, but others were glove or stick puppets whose operators worked from behind pieces of scenery or bookcases. It was puppet theatre in its most original and transparent form, and very charming to watch. One saw the strings and sticks that moved the puppets, but – and this was the art! – one immediately forgot them. Never before had I seen such subtle puppetry, and never had glove puppets seemed so alive and amusing to me. The puppeteers had to be the theatre’s top-notch personnel – indeed, the finest of their profession. The puppets themselves, although of simple design, were miniature masterpieces of precision engineering. Their necks moved as naturally as if they possessed real spinal columns. Their eyes rolled in a wholly convincing manner, their eyelids opened and closed at natural intervals. It was only a few moments before I forgot they were puppets altogether. What contributed to this were their excellently imitated voices, for if there was one thing I did know, dear friends, it was how Booklings spoke! I am one of the few initiates to have actually heard their voices. They all have a slightly throaty, husky way of speaking, but they enunciate clearly. Frogs whose voices are breaking might sound like that if croaking weren’t their only form of articulation. At all events, those voices sounded so familiar, they immediately took me back to my time in the Leather Grotto. Whoever was responsible for this production possessed a knowledge of the catacombs and their inhabitants that was in no way inferior to my own.

  ‘They’re like the meerkats in the zoo,’ Inazia said softly.

  ‘Eh?’ I said.

  ‘The meerkats,’ she repeated. ‘In the zoo. You always feel you’d like to feed the things and take them home with you.’

  I was briefly thrown by the thought that Inazia actually went to the zoo to feed the meerkats there, instead of to the park to poison the pigeons. But I soon turned my attention to the stage again. The funny little creatures were restlessly bustling around the set, toting books, arranging them on shelves and reciting poetry or prose. They climbed around on the book machine, a gigantic prop that filled the biggest stage. There, whole shelves of books were gliding to and fro and up and down, constantly loaded and unloaded by the Booklings. In smaller caves, they self-importantly operated printing presses or tended tattered old tomes like terminally ill patients in their book infirmary. They polished huge crystals and wielded pickaxes in a diamond mine. You didn’t know where to look, there was so much going on. And they sang and danced meanwhile! Yes, all the Bookling scenes were staged like one big, intoxicating dance routine, like a series of spirited waltzes composed – if my ears didn’t deceive me – by Elemi Deufelwalt. Boom-ta-ta, boom-ta-ta … It was an incessant circling and turning and pirouetting, a single, intoxicating, rotating tribute to literature and life itself. There was an Orming4 waltz, a waltz of the crystals, a waltz of the diamonds. Boom-ta-ta, boom-tata … My leg twitched involuntarily in waltz time – I simply couldn’t help it. Curtains rose and fell ever faster, scenes swiftly changed in time to the music. Coloured lights flared up and died, phosphorescent jellyfish and fungi danced in the dark – it was a feast for the eyes and ears. We saw a pas de deux performed by two Booklings composed entirely of diamonds that dissected the candlelight and torchlight into a hundred slivers and projected them on to the walls of the theatre. I had never before seen such sentimental but captivating puppetry. And it culminated in the most glorious of all waltzes, that masterpiece dedicated by Jonas Nussrath to a beautiful blue river. The Uggly beside me was swaying in time to it and so were the theatregoers below us. As for me, dear friends, I dissolved into nostalgic ecstasy! It was almost as if I had re-encountered the Booklings in the flesh.

  I was just wondering if they would dare to interrupt this exuberant number by showing Colophonius Regenschein’s tragic deathbed scene when I suddenly heard shouts and the clatter of weapons, and smelt a stench of pitch! The Booklings milled around in confusion.

  The waltz ended abruptly, savage drumbeats rang out and the music took on a strident, positively hysterical note. Were those the martial rhythms of the overture to Flar Froc’s alarming opera with its medieval choruses? Yes! Flames shot up and licked the sides of the stage. The stench became infernal: a mixture of smoke, sulphur and – yes, wasn’t that blood I smelt too? And then they converged from all directions: Bookhunters, dozens of them! Life-size marionettes, they were lowered from above and came striding on to the stage from the wings, swinging their battleaxes. Many more – not puppets but actors in costumes – even came running down the aisles with blazing torches. Children were not the only occupants of the stalls to scream in terror.

  For one panic-stricken moment I thought the Bookhunt
ers had really returned and would take over the theatre! Their armour of bones, insect shells and rusty metal, their terrifying masks and weapons – all were just as I remembered them. One Bookhunter wearing a death’s-head mask actually burst into our box and aimed his crossbow at me, only to disappear, roaring with laughter, and leave me unscathed. I almost fainted, but Inazia laid a soothing hand on my arm.

  ‘It’s all part of the show,’ she said.

  ‘Really?’ I gasped. ‘And my heart attack? Is that also part of the show?’

  Then darkness suddenly fell once more. Every light and flame was extinguished. The music ceased. The Booklings uttered a few more shrill screams, the Bookhunters’ cruel laughter gradually died away until total silence fell. Even the appalling smells emitted by the scent organ had dissipated.

  1 Harpyrs: unpleasant inhabitants of the catacombs of Bookholm. See The City of Dreaming Books, p. 295 ff. (Tr.)

  2 See The City of Dreaming Books, p. 173 ff. (Tr.)

  3 See The City of Dreaming Books, p. 186 ff. (Tr.).

  4 Orming: rarely performed ritual with which the Booklings receive an outsider into their community if they choose to do so. See The City of Dreaming Books, p. 222 ff. (Tr.)

  The King of the Shadows

  AT FIRST I genuinely thought I’d had a heart attack. High overhead, I saw coloured lights in a pall of utter darkness. Was this the legendary light you’re said to see when you’re dying? I hadn’t imagined it would be so colourful. But then the curious light show descended. A dimly illuminated framework composed of thin rails and curved struts, it overarched the whole auditorium.

  ‘What’s that?’ I asked apprehensively. My nerves were strained to breaking point.

 
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