The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.24Walter Moers
‘Don’t you recognise it?’ Inazia replied. She tittered. ‘You described it in detail yourself. It’s the Bookway.’
The what? Oh yes, now I remembered: it was the Rusty Gnomes’ Bookway. That structure up there was supposed to be a model of it, of course: an extremely downsized representation of the miles-long railway that had transported consignments of books through the catacombs in days gone by. I had travelled on it personally and perforce during my escape from the Bookhunters and the Leather Grotto. My memories of it were far from pleasant, for I never came closer to death than I did on that wild ride.
I could already hear and see the little wheeled toboggan that came squeaking along the rails with me, in the form of a tiny puppet, aboard it. Incredible! They’d been bold enough to show this breakneck chase! The toboggan steadily gained speed until it was racing along the track, its wheels screeching and spewing sparks, right above the heads of the audience. The sparks struck by the iron wheels flew off in a wide arc and rained down on the theatregoers’ heads. The fascination I felt for this extraordinary theatrical reproduction of a chapter in my book that really defied such treatment was great, but not as great as the delight it inspired in younger members of the audience. A regular commotion broke out in the auditorium. Children jumped to their feet, pointed upwards, craned their necks, clapped their hands. Music struck up again and with a vengeance! The well-known upbeat overture by Ossigichio Ronani, which always put me in mind of wildly galloping horses, it went quite well with my breakneck progress! I had completely forgotten that the Booklings scene in which I witnessed Colophonius Regenschein’s death had simply been omitted. No matter! On with the action!
And then came a rustle of wings as some gigantic, fluttering, primeval birds swooped down on the track. These were the bloodthirsty Harpyrs, which had been pursuing me. Played by ingenious marionettes with huge leather wings and controlled from above by wires, they looked no less intimidating than they had in reality. Implacably, they chased the screeching, spark-spewing toboggan through the darkness and slashed at it with their sharp beaks. Then came an abrupt change of music that made the headlong pursuit more menacing still: it was the notorious Ride of the Harpyrs by Wanrich Drager.
One of the Harpyrs managed to cling to the toboggan and launch a fierce attack on the Yarnspinner puppet with its beak. I empathised with the puppet to such an extent that I lashed out at the terrible bird with both arms, causing Inazia to laugh hoarsely. But the production went one better! The curtain over a smaller stage rose with a whisper and I saw, to cries of delight from the audience, part of the scenery in close-up. In principle, this was the same trick as the one used in the rubbish dump of Unholm: Yarnspinner clung to the speeding toboggan, his cloak fluttering wildly in the headwind, while the Harpyr behind him, now a truly enormous puppet, crawled towards our hero with slashing beak and talons! We could hear the whistle of the wind – even smell the huge bird’s noisome breath. The Murkholmer scent organist was manipulating his stops in ecstasy. I noticed out of the corner of my eye that sundry worried parents were leaving the auditorium with their sobbing children. Then, at the height of all this commotion, came a sudden bang! A crash! The lights abruptly went out and the music ceased. All that could now be heard was fluttering and a violent rush of air. My fall from the Bookway and my ensuing flight with the Harpyr, to which I had clung in desperation, had to be supplied by the theatregoers’ imagination.
Then silence again.
A sulphurous smell.
A bubbling sound.
At last a dim red glow became visible at the foot of the stage, growing gradually brighter. Out of the darkness loomed a massive wall built of strangely shaped grey bricks, blind windows and a colossal façade that seemed to go up and up for ever. And then came … a disappointment! For me, at least.
Let me put it this way, dear friends: even the best theatre is incapable of imitating true immensity. For what we were shown was a set of Shadowhall Castle, that legendary place in the heart of the catacombs where the Harpyr had eventually set me down: the Shadow King’s subterranean place of exile, where my fate was to take a drastic turn. Loath as I am to criticise them harshly, the stage designers had definitely found the external architecture of Shadowhall Castle too much for them – understandably so! If anyone is entitled to judge, it is I, for I saw Shadowhall Castle with my own eyes. Its sick geometry, which seemed to pour scorn on every law of nature, and the sheer size of that insanity-turned-to-stone in the bowels of the catacombs – these could not be satisfactorily reproduced within the ramped confines of a stage. It was a sheer impossibility! Given their limitations, however, the artists of the Puppetocircus Maximus had conjured a remarkable achievement out of their totally insoluble task with the aid of artificial lighting and sound effects, music and smells. The set must have stunned everyone in the auditorium (except me). Its designers had cleverly opted for a section of the castle’s façade: the gate constructed of fossilised books through which Yarnspinner now entered it by way of a bridge. One couldn’t actually see the molten lava boiling beneath this, just its red reflection on the masonry, but one could hear and smell it volcanically bubbling away. The scent organ diffused an infernal stench of sulphur that would have been sufficient for any scene of Hell.
Another curtain and another change of scene. We now saw Yarnspinner – this time as a marionette – roaming around inside the castle. The way the interior had been represented, with its converging and diverging walls and ceaselessly rising and falling floors, was a masterpiece of set-building and stage machinery. The exterior set was forgotten; I was back in Shadowhall Castle once more! How could anyone but me have known what it looked like? How could they have guessed what millions of petrified, lichen-covered books smelt like? Yet everything was utterly realistic. This was exactly how the place had looked and smelt! There was a sound like massive millstones grinding together as walls converged, stairways appeared out of nowhere and ceilings floated down like flying carpets, luring Yarnspinner’s wandering figure ever deeper into the architectural labyrinth. I had once more forgotten that the figure onstage was meant to be me, so complete was the spell cast over me – and every member of the hushed audience – by the mise en scène.
The play then took a new turn. After the cheerful musical numbers in Bookholm, the almost buffoonish numbers performed by the singing books, the horrific scenes in the rubbish dump of Unholm, the Booklings’ rapturous ballets and the breathtaking chase on the Rusty Gnomes’ Bookway, a solemn and entirely different note was struck. Things now became serious, my friends! Even as Yarnspinner entered the castle, we heard the Shadowy Scherzo from Valther Musag’s 7th Symphony – music that makes you think you see silhouettes on walls before they actually appear. Every sound disintegrated into hundreds of echoes that flitted through the auditorium like bats that had lost their way. Underlying everything was a sustained rumble like that of an awakening volcano that might erupt at any moment. Faint, ghostly voices whispered here and there like harbingers of some mental illness. My sojourn in that petrified magic castle was arranged like a collage, like sets dovetailed together at random: a brilliant but seemingly arbitrary series of scenes in which chronological order, time itself, dramatic structure and logic had ceased to play any part. And that was just how I had felt at the time! Time and space were dimensions that obeyed different laws in Shadowhall or were simply of no importance. They say that gravity steadily diminishes the closer you get to the centre of the earth. Perhaps it’s just the same with time.
Well, at all events, chronology played a subordinate role in the play’s dramatic structure. I was accompanied onstage by the Weeping Shadows, whose acquaintance I actually made much later. Although they were at first glance very simply portrayed by actors draped in grey veils, they could climb walls with surprising ease, wander across ceilings upside down and pass through masonry or emerge from it. Whatever the ingeniou
This was an almost abstract theatre of mood and atmosphere. The plot had virtually ceased to matter. Melancholy, grief, pain, despair, fear – those were themes in Shadowhall Castle, only loosely conjoined by the logic or illogicality of a nightmare. Disturbing music by Smygort Messodusk and Stavko Shmiritoditch accompanied the oppressive scenes in the meandering passages. One alarmingly beautiful set followed another, but after a longish succession of such sombre impressions and moods the audience, especially its younger members, became noticeably restive, and I myself began to wonder impatiently where the Shadow King had got to. Where the devil was the secret protagonist of this play? Where was the lord and master of this ghostly castle?
Then, however, the walls parted once more and we finally saw the throne room of Shadowhall Castle – one of the most amazing sets in a play that was far from devoid of them! It was a simple but audacious edifice composed of geometrical blocks, like a ballroom-sized cave produced by tectonic displacements. Yes, this was how one imagined the secret heart of the catacombs might look: grey blocks of granite and huge beams of white crystal heaped up together like the trunks of felled trees, and dancing behind them the flames of an enormous open fire. That was all, but it was overwhelming in its simplicity. Accompanying this monument to solitude were the strident strains of Gynasok Strivir’s famous and notorious firebird ballet suite, like music issuing from a burning madhouse. For there he was at last: the Shadow King!
Or rather, there he wasn’t, for all one could see of him were shadows flickering over the walls so fast and so wildly, it was impossible to tell if they were made by real dancers or puppets. I clung to the parapet and leant over it so as not to miss anything. The real Shadow King would have to show himself some time. But then came another disappointment: no huge and impressive marionette, no splendid costume made of ancient papyri sewn together and worn by a ballet virtuoso in a brilliant mask – no, nothing of the kind. No tangible protagonist’s presence. Just shadows, shapes and silhouettes, both now and in the ensuing scenes. When Yarnspinner and Homuncolossus were onstage together, the most one saw of the latter was an adumbration. When Yarnspinner and he were dining together at a massive table, the sinister monarch was hidden in a shadowy part of the stage and all one heard was his commanding voice – which, I must admit, sounded most impressive. When they were walking along the passages together, all one saw of the castellan was his immense shadow gliding along the walls. When Homuncolossus delivered his gloomy monologues he sat deeply ensconced and almost invisible in the recesses of his vast throne, with only his eyes glowing in the darkness. It was all very artistically and ingeniously staged, admittedly, but one couldn’t help feeling a touch of disappointment that the principal character was never actually seen.
‘What is all this?’ I ended by demanding impatiently, almost indignantly. ‘Where’s the puppet that plays the Shadow King?’
‘It’s the best puppet in the play,’ Inazia retorted, ‘don’t you get it?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘I honestly don’t.’
‘They haven’t shown him in the form of a puppet out of respect!’ she hissed. ‘You have to create him yourself.’ She tapped her head with a spindly finger. ‘In your imagination.’
I turned back to the stage and reluctantly watched Yarnspinner, who seemed to be conversing with thin air. ‘But that makes me look as if I’m, well … insane,’ I protested in a low voice. ‘As if the Shadow King exists only in my head.’
‘It’s Invisible Theatre,’ Inazia whispered, giving me a look that verged on fanaticism.
‘Invisible Theatre?’ I repeated stupidly.
‘The very latest form of Puppetism! It doesn’t matter what the Invisible Theatre shows onstage,’ she whispered. ‘What matters far more is what it does inside your head.’ She put a finger to her lips and pointed to the stage.
I obeyed her unspoken injunction and redevoted myself to what was happening there. Against my will, I watched Yarnspinner conversing with the invisible Shadow King, but I defiantly refused – on principle! – to take part in this stupid experiment on the audience. What a shame! Everything had gone so well hitherto, and now they were ruining the vital denouement with pseudo-artistic tricks. Invisible Theatre? Nonsense! I started fidgeting in my seat again.
But then, my dear friends, something happened quite despite me. The more fiercely I fought against picturing an imaginary Shadow King on the stage, the more vividly he took shape in my head. It was like my insomnia: the more stubbornly I try to convince myself I’m tired, the more active my brain becomes, but the more I fear I won’t be able to sleep, the sooner I nod off. The harder I tried to suppress my powers of imagination, the more overpowering they became. At first I saw the Shadow King only as a jagged silhouette in the dim light – a shape as nebulous as a ghost. But when my resistance diminished still further, he took on more solidity. I saw his tattered paper robes, his majestic head and sparkling eyes, the jagged outline of his sad crown – even, although I didn’t use my opera glasses at all, the tiny, cryptic runes on his papyrus skin. At some point he was simply there – indelibly imprinted on my mind’s eye.
The dialogue was a considerable help to me. It was like good music, which one readily follows without giving much thought to the harmonies of which it’s composed. Great stage monologues possess a rhythm and melody that often move the audience more than their content – one has only to think of the plays by Aleisha Wimpersleake. You don’t recognise the true quality of such texts if you merely read them; you have to hear them spoken, because they often owe more to music than to literature. Although I had some memorable conversations with the Shadow King in reality, our dialogues were never as elegant and musical as these, even in my book. The author of these lines possessed a quite exceptional ear for the spoken word, for how it works when divorced from paper and printer’s ink: as pure sound. I was electrified! I wanted to be able to write like that too! I had already tacitly accepted that I’d exhausted my resources and reached the end of the literary road, but this was something new. It was a young art I might yet learn. Puppetism, a synthesis of the arts to which I could contribute something with my own abilities! It was exciting!
Only now did I fully grasp the radical nature of this artistic device. Invisible Theatre – of course! It would have ruined the production if they’d tried to portray the Shadow King with the aid of something as banal as a puppet, no matter how well-designed. As I have already said: true magnitude cannot be shown onstage, any more than superhuman strength demonstrated, genuine beauty simulated or natural savagery imitated. To that extent, any attempt to represent the Shadow King by technical means would have been doomed to fail from the start. It would have been like having a wild werewolf played by an actor in wolf costume – simply ludicrous! The only solution was to leave it entirely to the audience’s imagination, a brilliant dramatic device to be employed only by someone who had total faith in his own abilities and didn’t give a damn for sceptics. The act of a genius! This invisible puppet turned every member of the audience into a talented Puppetist, and that was what finally convinced me that the person behind the Puppetocircus Maximus must be a very great artist in every field: a jack of all trades who blindly obeyed his instincts and usually hit the target. I looked around because I suddenly f
Of all the scenes set in Shadowhall Castle, the one I liked best was the one in which the Shadow King recounted his own story. For this, the director had fallen back on one of the simplest but most effective theatrical devices: the shadow play. Back-projected on the walls of the throne room were big planes of different colours – red, yellow, blue – on which cut-out figures and scenery were moved around while the Shadow King was speaking. These were sometimes living creatures, sometimes buildings or landscapes, but also flames and rivers, birds in flight, scudding clouds, rushing rivers and windswept seas of grass, imaginary figures, picturesque dream personnel and whole spirit worlds. This was the way in which the play depicted the Shadow King’s life and ideas, his childhood, his development into a writer and also, of course, the terrible part of his story in which Pfistomel Smyke and Claudio Harpstick transformed him into a creature made of paper and banished him to the catacombs.
Despite the magnificently detailed treatment of the Shadowhall Castle scenes, however, it did not escape me that, here too, my book had been drastically abridged. My fight with the Animatomes had been cut, for example, and so had my visit to the Library of the Orm. Why, I couldn’t say, nor could I tell why the chapter with the giant in the castle’s cellar had been left out. Perhaps there had been a reluctance to spoil the elegiac mood of the foregoing scenes by introducing another change of location and scenery and further rapid twists and turns in the plot. But the authors of the stage play may possibly have felt, like some readers of my book, that the episode with the giant was imaginary – that it was a flight of fancy and a figment of my overexerted brain. I do, however, have the utmost sympathy with that point of view, for in hindsight I myself often wonder if I actually underwent those experiences or only dreamt them.
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