The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.25Walter Moers
Instead, my departure from the castle followed in short order. The Shadow King’s exit from his subterranean place of exile in my humble company was celebrated on a grand theatrical scale with the use of countless puppets, brilliant lighting effects produced by hundred of candles, and musical backing from the famous intermezzo by Gipnatio Sacrem, which I have never been able to hear since without tears coming into my eyes.
The Shadow King’s reconquest of the Leather Grotto, which actually entailed the merciless slaughter of the Bookhunters and was an implacably brutal and bloodthirsty act of revenge, had wisely been presented as another shadow play. This lent the whole thing an artistic touch and made it acceptable even to the children in the audience. One Bookhunter after another could be seen sinking to the ground, felled by the infuriated Shadow King. Indeed, we even saw blood spurt and severed heads roll, but not in all the unappetising detail this scene would have called for if played by three-dimensional puppets. Presented thus, these terrible events seemed no more genuine than a bad dream.
As you know, dear friends, this ghastly episode marked the real end of my visit to Netherworld. The story ends with me ascending to the surface in the Shadow King’s company. I saw the Booklings hypnotise the surviving Bookhunters into killing one another. I also saw the Shadow King execute Claudio Harpstick with a blow of his paper hand, only to set fire to himself and, once thoroughly ablaze, drive Pfistomel Smyke down into the catacombs of Bookholm. You know all this only too well, so I’ve no need to give you a more detailed account of these sad and horrific scenes, even though they were among the most memorable of the entire play. In view of this, I shall spare myself the task of describing them.
Let me, therefore, conclude my account of the Puppetocircus Maximus by describing the final set. It was a model of the City of Dreaming Books so extensive and detailed that it filled the largest of the stages. Even before the first flames appeared, a whiff of smoke foretold what was about to happen. Then little tongues of flame rose above the roofs here and there. The smell of smoke grew stronger, becoming so pungent, acrid and alarming that many of the audience looked around apprehensively for the emergency exits. And we heard, at first only faintly, the first notes of the fire tocsin. At the same time, Perla la Gadeon’s well-known poem was declaimed by a powerful, resonant bass voice that seemed to come from all directions at once:
‘Hear the loud Bookholmian bells —
What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
how they screamed out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
they can only shriek, shriek …’
The fires burning in the city onstage became still bigger and more alarming, and sent thin columns of smoke rising to the roof of the theatre. One heard distant screams and crackling flames, glass shattering and the crash of buildings as they collapsed. The flames spread like blood welling from an open wound and raced along the streets and alleyways. The tolling of the tocsin grew more insistent. A commotion broke out in the audience, many of whom began to sob, so convincingly was the disaster being reproduced in miniature. I clung to the parapet of our box, once more fighting back my tears. Several members of the audience were already rising from their seats. The doors of the auditorium opened and they streamed out, not in panic but as quickly as they could under the supervision of solicitous members of the theatre staff. I couldn’t bring myself to leave, although Inazia was already standing beside the door of our box. I found the panorama of the burning city simultaneously heartbreaking and fascinating. It was, in a dismayingly authentic way, the same sight that had presented itself to my gaze when I had escaped from the city and turned for a last look. A voice rang out from above. It was doubtless meant to be my own, for it was reciting words from the description of this event that had appeared in my book:
‘The Dreaming Books had awakened. Miles-high columns of black smoke were rising into the heavens fraught with paper transformed into weightless ash: the residue of incinerated thoughts. Swirling within them were myriad sparks, every one a fiery word ascending ever higher to dance with the stars. The rustle of the countless awakening books reminded me sadly of the rustling laughter of the Shadow King. He, too, was ascending in the biggest, most terrible conflagration Bookholm had ever undergone.’
That was just how I felt at this moment. I was as stirred and saddened as I had been then. But I also felt absurdly alive and greedy for all that was to come: as highly charged as if I’d been connected to an alchemical battery! It was only a stage play performed by puppets, but I had felt I was reliving my own past!
I remained standing beside the parapet for a while, being embarrassed to weep in front of the Uggly. Not until my tears finally ceased to flow did I tear my eyes away from the sight of the burning city and plunge into the throng of theatregoers making for the exit.
‘That was a bit more than I’d bargained for,’ I said to Inazia when we were outside at last, standing in the forecourt of the theatre with members of the audience streaming past us, chattering excitedly. It was the biggest possible understatement I could think of at that moment. ‘I’d give anything to meet the people who staged it.’
‘Really?’ said the Uggly, favouring me with one of her hideous smiles. ‘What if I were to introduce you to the person who bears artistic responsibility for the whole production? The director of the Puppetocircus Maximus himself?’
‘You could do that?’ I asked in astonishment.
‘Well …’ she drawled with ill-concealed pride. ‘It might be arranged. After all, I’m one of the patrons of this wonderful theatre. Look down.’
Inazia pointed to the ground between us. I noticed only then that the theatre forecourt we were standing on was paved with thousands of red and white stones laid alternately, and that they all had names carved on them. I looked more closely at the stone she had indicated.
There were two names on it:
Inazia Anazazi and Ahmed ben Kibitzer.
Puppetism for Beginners
FROM THE FOLLOWING day onwards and for quite a time thereafter, I was treated to some free and informative tours of modern Bookholm on which Inazia Anazazi the Uggly acted as my guide, theatre critic and expert on Puppetism. I rented some quiet rooms in a small boarding house, frequented mainly by writers, where I could not only get a peaceful night’s sleep but also do some work occasionally. Whenever her shop’s opening times permitted, or mostly at night, I accompanied Inazia on strolls through the various city districts and thus became acquainted with the new sights, theatres and, on occasion, restaurants and coffee houses. We must have looked an extremely odd couple: a Lindworm with his face forever hidden by a cowl, arm in arm with a tall, gaunt Uggly. We were usually deep in conversation, but I tended to supply the cues while Inazia spouted an endless stream of information about our special subject.
‘When Bookholm had been burnt to the ground,’ began the first of her series of lectures, ‘many of its inhabitants were utterly destitute. Their houses, their shops and all their possessions had gone up in smoke. There are many ways of starting again from scratch, and putting on puppet plays was a very popular one. For two reasons.’
She inhaled deeply as though intending to tell me the rest of the story in a single breath.
‘One reason was that a puppet theatre, and even the puppets for it, could be very easily fabricated out of the ruins of the gutted city. Nail a few charred planks together and there’s your stage. Sew some scraps of cloth together and there’s your cast. Sew two buttons on a sock: the principal character. A leafy branch in the background: an enchanted forest. The other reason was the immense demand for entertainment after the disaster, not only from children but from adults hard at work on the city’s reconstruction. Seated around their campfires at night – many of them still didn’t have a roof over their heads, don’t forget – they were eager to exchange their hardships for the world of the imagination. Readers and ex
We paused beside the remains of a huge, charred oak tree standing in the centre of a small square. I could still remember when, two centuries earlier, this ancient tree and its countless branches were in sap and had been one of Bookholm’s most vibrant sights. Now it was a horrible black skeleton serving only as a surface for billstickers. The leaves it now bore were made of paper and advertised a wide variety of services or cultural events.
‘Look,’ the Uggly told me. ‘Half those posters are to do with Puppetism.’
We slowly circled the huge, dead tree to enable me to read the posters and announcements:
‘You must also read the small print,’ Inazia prompted me.
I enlisted the help of my monocle in order to decipher the smaller notices.
I found one poster particularly amusing:
Another slip of paper bore nothing but two mysterious handwritten sentences:
Yet another was less cryptic:
And so on and so forth … Hundreds of these notices, either pasted one on top of the other or nailed to the trunk, formed the dead tree’s new bark. One day it would be completely encased in them. I was particularly struck by two things. First, that the titles of the plays advertised were rather unusual for a puppet theatre: The Dead Art of Folding Cylinders, Malevolent Bananas, The Iron Eyebrow, or When Chairs Weep, to name but a few. They weren’t fairy-tale or mythical material and few of the productions were expressly directed at children. They were adapted from works of contemporary literature: novels, dramas and stories by modern authors like Arngrim Berserker, Juhanna Pignozzi, Petro Polognese, Count Pallaprat di Bigotto, Yury Yurk, Gwatkin de Latouche, Lapoleon Lonocle, Audrian van Eckenschreck and Hyppolitus Knotz – in other words, modern authors who had originally aimed their work at an adult readership in book form. Why was I so disturbed by the thought that so much contemporary literature was being adapted for the puppet theatre? The second thing that struck me about these notices was that nearly all the performances took place at timber-time.1
‘Good heavens,’ I exclaimed, ‘what happened to good old timber-time? Are books ever read aloud in the old-fashioned way, or are they all automatically adapted into puppet plays?’
‘Oh, timber-time!’ the Uggly said in a dismissive tone. She looked at me pityingly. ‘Timber-time? That’s only for hay-wagon tourists these days!’ She was alluding to one aspect of Bookholm tourism in which provincial visitors were hauled into the city on big hay wagons normally used for bringing in the hay harvest.
‘There still are some good professional readers, of course,’ she went on, ‘but their performances are so overcrowded, you can hardly hear a word for the chattering of the audience. Besides, master readers play for safety. They almost always read from the popular stuff everyone knows. Your books, for instance.’ She glared at me reproachfully.
‘In that case,’ I said quickly, to change the subject, ‘do highbrow audiences go mainly to puppet theatres for their evening’s entertainment?’
Inazia nodded. ‘You can say that again. And to some extent, you’re not entirely blameless for that.’
‘Well, no. You may not have lit the fire that destroyed this city, but you did, so to speak, bring the torch that lit it out of the catacombs in company with the Shadow King. Puppetism arose from the ashes of old Bookholm. To that extent—’
‘To that extent I’m to blame for everything yet again?’ I laughed. ‘Utter nonsense! You can pin a lot of things on me, but not the fact that timber-time is dying out and there’s a puppet theatre on every street corner. I’m not responsible for that!’
The Uggly smiled. ‘But that art form could never have attained its present greatness if the city hadn’t been destroyed. It’s a beautiful bloom that sprang from disaster. You can stick that feather in your cap with a clear conscience, my friend.’
To be honest, I was far from displeased by this idea. Optimus Yarnspinner, the spark that ignited a new art form, the father of Puppetism! Why not? Speaking with all due modesty, I had already made a certain contribution to Zamonian culture, but I’d never created a new artistic discipline before. Inazia’s bold assertion might possibly contain a grain of truth … An exciting idea began to germinate within me.
‘I want to learn everything there is to know about Puppetism,’ I demanded. ‘Everything! I’ve missed out on so much since the old days.’
‘Everything?’ Inazia sighed. ‘Pah! Do you know what that means? Have you any idea how much accumulated knowledge there is? How long it would take?’
‘I don’t care,’ I said. ‘I’ve plenty of time.’
She gave me a long look. ‘You never know,’ she said eventually, taking my arm again. ‘Very well, though, I’ll tell you all I can. You asked for it, and you’ll regret it.’ Then she laughed in the dismaying way in which only Ugglies can laugh.
1 Late evening, when it was an old Bookholmian custom to light a log fire and read aloud from books. Local bookshops sometimes used such readings for promotional purposes. See The City of Dreaming Books, p. 109 ff. (Tr.)
DURING THE NEXT few weeks, my friends, I discovered how accurate Inazia’s prediction had been. I learned far more about Puppetism than I really wanted. But isn’t that the only sensible way of learning? Stuffing yourself with more than you can digest? Sucking up information like a thirsty sponge? Filling up with data like a camel of the desert hydrating itself for a long journey? It’s the only way of finding out what you really need – what will lodge in the convolutions of your brain like intellectual, ideological fat and form the inexhaustible reservoir that will sustain you for a lifetime. Any serious course of study is an orgy, an information-gathering bacchanal. Most of it you subsequently forget like anyone who has indulged to excess. What matters is what sticks in the mind – except that you never know in advance what it will be. So in with it! I’ve never thought much of strictly organised and methodical study. You can’t arrange a library in alphabetical order until you’ve collected one.
Yes, I wanted to learn! At a relatively advanced age for a Lindworm I became an avid student of Puppetism, and to that end the Uggly mercilessly dragged me along every street and through every district in the city. She showed me every gaming room, every cellar theatre, every bookshop specialising in Puppetism, every little museum of curiosities, every factory and every shop that had any connection with that novel art. We roamed the backyards of Slengvort, where there were workshops producing almost every part of a puppet’s anatomy: wig-makers, eye mechanics, wood carvers for kinetic lips, beard and plait braiders, workshops for mechanical hands and mobile ceramic faces, carpenters’ shops that produced wooden limbs on a lathe. There were studios redolent of turpentine that specialised in the elaborate painting of puppets. Other artists concentrated on scenery and posters. There was a cloud-painting studio, prettily named Cumulus, which would paint you any theatrical sky you chose. There were also smithies that turned out perfect little metal joints, sewing rooms for tiny costumes, factories producing miniature tableware and articles in daily use, a rope works producing puppet strings only, and several dwarfs’ joineries specialising in miniature furniture. In one of Slengvort’s side streets there was even a tattooist whose ink-laden needles decorated puppets in an unrivalled manner.
We visited a shop that traded in the Doodleton Musical Puppets I’d seen at the Puppetocircus Maximus: walking basses, dancing violins, flying trumpets, eyelash-batting clarinets, and drums and xylophones that played themselves with spindly metal arms and tiny fingers. The proprietor, a talkative Frogling with a gurgling v
In antiquarian bookshops we rummaged around in handwritten scripts for hitherto unperformed puppet plays. There were thousands of these, for nearly every other waiter and bookseller’s apprentice strove to render his lot more lucrative by writing them. In cellars and attics I discovered a multitude of unused or forgotten puppets such as I would never have imagined in my wildest dreams. They ranged from the tiniest of flea circus marionettes, which were adequately visible only through a magnifying glass, to whole armies of tattered puppet supernumeraries and huge, colourful book-dragons the length of a whole street but made of featherweight balsa wood. These were stored in interconnecting vaulted cellars, where they collected dust while waiting to be borne through the streets during the annual puppet carnival.
I stood marvelling in a crowded shop that specialised in butterfly marionettes. Thousands of wonderful Lepidoptera zamoniae, which I initially mistook for hand-painted paper puppets, were suspended from strings or mounted on thin sticks, adorning the shelves and walls in such profusion that the sheer wealth of colours made one’s eyes ache. When the proprietress, who reeked of wild garlic and was an Uggly like Inazia, informed us that they were all real butterflies, individually mummified and mounted, it gave me the creeps. Even her assurances that the creatures died a peaceful, natural death and had been reverently embalmed by the Uggly herself failed to appease me altogether. This Uggly-owned business made an almost more sinister impression on me than a shop named The Witching Hour, which we visited shortly afterwards, although that one positively aimed to give its customers the creeps! As its name betrayed, it specialised in puppet actors that played demons, ghosts and similar imaginary, otherworldly creatures. Dangling from its ceiling were greenish victims of drowning with bulging eyes; ghostly, skeletal figures swathed in cobwebs that glowed by day as well as in the dark; headless bodies and bodyless heads; transparent, nebulous figures made of glass and crystal; dancing will-o’-the-wisps; and every imaginable kind of shadowy creature whose appearance on the stage of a puppet theatre was calculated to provoke gooseflesh and childish screams. Inazia, who was clearly a regular customer, acquired a shrunken head reputed to weep when the clock struck midnight. I never asked if it worked, nor did I want to know!
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