The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.27Walter Moers
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I have a very high regard for the work of Zank Frakfa and admire his services to literature, even though they have led to the fact that certain unpleasant matters better not mentioned are nowadays referred to as Frakfaesque;1 for instance, income-tax returns or what happens if you fill them out incorrectly. When I attended the puppet theatre adaptation of one of Frakfa’s best stories, however, I found it hard to identify with the principal character, a giant cockroach with manic-depressive tendencies. This applied particularly to the scene in which the protagonist’s father pelts him with apples until his chitinous armour splinters. Frightful! Who wants to see such a thing in a puppet theatre? Not even a cockroach, probably.
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Underwater Puppetism – a whole chapter in itself! I’m jotting this down in an inn, shortly after attending (with Inazia) a performance at the AQUANAUTICAL AMPHITHEATRE in Colophon Lane. Incredible! The circular aquarium is situated in the centre of a covered amphitheatre whose uppermost tiers of seats (the best) afford a view of the whole thing. It’s the biggest theatrical aquarium in Zamonia, the Uggly informed me. There would be room enough in it for a whale! Even the stage tank at the Florinthian opera house, which I’ve seen with my own eyes, is only half as big, though that one is used by professional balletic swimmers, whereas here they are puppets. Puppets underwater! What enchanting nonsense! What business do puppets have in a destructive element like water, especially those fitted with extremely sensitive mechanisms consisting mainly of wood and metal, in other words, materials that easily swell up or rust? And yet the puppets I saw in the AQUANAUTICAL AMPHITHEATRE looked as if water were their natural element! They really deserve a technical designation of their own. Divopets? Swimmonettes?
(NB Must write a letter to the editor of the ZAMONIAN DICTIONARY!)
All one saw at the beginning of the show were a few little luminous bubbles, pale yellow eggs that scarcely moved, just drifted gently to and fro. Then they started to twitch nervously, to dilate and expand, seemingly in all directions, until they eventually burst with a loud plop. Then there were twice as many eggs as before! These likewise burst in their turn, and so on and so forth until the whole basin was a mass of luminous eggs. They milled around wildly, here and there converging into groups and forming shoals. The water turned red and bubbled up, then subsided, and where the shoals of eggs had been one now saw simple life forms floating: algae, sponges, molluscs, primitive jellyfish.
Aha, I thought, didactic Puppetism illustrating the origins of life in the ocean with the aid of trick puppets. Very pretty and instructive – the sort of thing biology teachers take whole classes of schoolchildren to see. But it was much more imaginative than that. The water changed colour again and again – green, yellow, blue, pink, violet – and every time it cleared, new and higher marine fauna took shape. Jellyfish and molluscs turned into agnathous fish and nautilus cephalopods, trilobites and sea scorpions, and the latter gave way to ever more complex creatures such as phosphorescent fish that glided through the water like coloured lanterns. Looking closely, one could make out puppeteers in camouflaged costumes operating their complicated marionettes from among the floating seaweed or behind banks of coral. This they did by hand or with wires and strings – and without air, for they were also underwater and had to hold their breath. With every transformation, the puppets became more and more bizarre – and, one has to say, more scientifically incorrect. I saw sea creatures I’d never seen or heard of before: jellyfish with faces like cats, sharks with bony armour, crabs with sucker-studded tentacles, octopuses with claws, huge sea horses resembling unicorns. The submarine fauna became more diverse and fantastic with every change of lighting and colour, until pale green water sprites with cute, doll-like faces and piscine bodies rose to the surface of the tank and gasped for air. Corpulent mermen swam around, chuckling and slapping their bellies. Thin, almost transparent marine hobgoblins appeared, giggling, out of the mist. I realised only now that this was a representation of the genesis of the whole of Zamonian marine mythology: the creatures that appeared by degrees included Serpentoids and Marsh Moomies, Pond Demons and Poseidans, Jelly Ghosts and Unxes, Frog Princes and Melusines, Mudwitches and Mist Sirens, Coralliforms and Kelp Kobolds, Sea Demons and Lagoon Lubbers, Gill Goblins and Riverlings, Tide Tots, Mermanikins, and Spume Sprites. Together, they formed the cast for an epic journey through the underwater world, the leading role being played by Mundine, a childish marine elf whose name was also the title of the play. Inazia confided to me that Mundine was played by a puppet carved entirely out of sea foam.
We saw a ballet performed by transparent jellyfish skilfully made of blown glass with coloured liquids pulsating inside them. A gigantic octopus of luminous rubber was simultaneously controlled by eight puppeteers, one to each tentacle. Sea spiders the size of truckles of cheese and made of genuine coral strutted around submarine volcanoes, singing in liquid voices. A three-headed sea serpent conversed with itself. The audience went wild when a whole shoal of flying fish with golden scales leapt out of the aquarium and circled the auditorium above their heads. Where technical mastery was concerned, this form of puppetry was little inferior, artistically speaking, to that of the Puppetocircus Maximus. (I’m breaking off here – too excited by such an incredible spectacle! Need a drink and some talk now. More on the subject later.)
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Political or social concerns belong in a petition; their right to be aired in a puppet theatre is at least debatable. I, too, consider that the lousy wages paid to Hoggling members of Bookholm’s Horse-Dung Shovellers Union are a political hot potato and deserving of public condemnation. However, the sight of dung-shovelling Hoggling puppets reading out wage scales to each other onstage may even be counterproductive to the elimination of social grievances – especially when real, malodorous horse dung is used as a prop! I left the theatre with a burning desire to coerce the Hogglings into exploitative wage contracts and then make their lives a misery by subjecting them to intolerable hours of work. That can’t have been the purpose of the play!
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The expressive capabilities of the so-called head marionettes of the MIMISTIC THEATRE are so subtle that you have to watch them closely through opera glasses throughout the performance if you don’t want to miss anything. The MIMISTIC THEATRE’s head marionettes are made up of countless movable components – lips, eyebrows, cheeks, eyeballs, eyelids, eyelashes, folds of skin, warts, strands of hair and so on, which are operated by as many strings. A great art mastered by very few puppeteers.
There are usually no more than two characters onstage, and all you can see of them are the head and upper body because they’re almost invariably seated at tables or concealed from the chest down by some other means. Their faces are forever in motion, but in such a focused and imperceptible way that you have to take the utmost care not to miss the highlights of a performance, which often consist in some diminutive but all-important detail. The greatest importance is also attached to the play scripts, which can only, so Inazia says, be written by the finest authors in the city. Usually consisting of longish monologues or polished dialogue of extreme density and emotionalism, they require just as much attention as the brilliant puppetry. The strain is such that I usually leave the MIMISTIC THEATRE bathed in perspiration although I’ve hardly moved a muscle during the performance. I once developed such severe cramp that I had to lean on Inazia on the way out.
To quote one example based on personal experience: A puppet so wrinkled that it resembled a centenarian Root Gnome confessed to another puppet that it had committed a murder, allegedly quite against its will. For nearly half an hour it described its motives and the unfortunate circumstances that had fatefully and inexorably led to the crime. And all the while one could see every possible emotion reflected in its face: grief, fear, rage, joy, disappointment, ecstasy, resignation. Until, in the end, while it was describing the murder, a single tear trickled down its cheek. At that moment, every member of the audience sobbed
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Aerial Puppetism isn’t the only form of entertainment that doesn’t hurt one’s pocket. The so-called NOCTURNAL MARKET is a sort of public advertising show for Puppetism held almost nightly in the square where the GRAVEYARD OF FORGOTTEN WRITERS used to be. In good weather one can not only buy little snacks from stalls and enjoy them by the dramatic light of torches, but watch talented young puppeteers, puppet-makers, musicians, poets, singers, etc. trying out their first attempts on the public free of charge (though modest donations are always welcome). Standing on little wooden stages or simply in the street, they show off home-made puppets, read dialogues or monologues and debate with the public. The NOCTURNAL MARKET is also frequented by numerous agents, talent scouts and theatre people in search of new staff or fresh ideas. A lot of artistic experimentation goes on there. At its best, therefore, the market has some exciting and trailblazing experiences to offer; at its worst, a load of half-baked nonsense. For all that, a stroll around the NOCTURNAL MARKET can often be more entertaining than a visit to a regular theatre, and because of the late hour the subjects and humour cultivated there are often daringly satirical and aimed at an adult audience. Anyone with an open mind can admire true innovations in the field of Puppetism at first hand and take part in heated discussions, or at least listen to them with amusement. I spend many a sleepless night at the market and linger there until dawn, tirelessly filling my notebook.
Here is a poem. It was recited by a young poet and puppeteer named Alcolis von Frin, who smelt faintly of cheap liquor but could have a great future ahead of him if he gets a grip on his high-proof problem. Delivered by his puppet, which resembled him down to his poetically long and dishevelled hair, his ‘Critic’s Tongue’ poem certainly chimed with my innermost thoughts on the subject:
‘In unslaked lime and molten lead,
in sewage from a river bed,
in urine from a mare in heat,
in sour milk from a witch’s teat,
in snake venom and old wives’ spit,
in bathwater and mongrels’ shit,
all authors say, in that foul brew
a critic’s tongue deserves to stew.
In slime that oozes from a frog,
in slaver from a rabid dog,
in rancid oil and, worse than this,
in bucketfuls of monkeys’ piss,
in horses’ snot and camel dung,
in fluid from a dead toad wrung,
all authors say, in that foul brew
a critic’s tongue deserves to stew.’
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Dwarfs are very big in Bookholmian Puppetism – I simply couldn’t resist that laboured joke, but it’s a statement of fact. At least two-thirds of all the city’s puppeteers and puppet-makers are of small stature, a circumstance they seek to disguise by wearing tall caps and high heels. Because of their build, dwarfs are excellently suited to concealing themselves behind a minimum of scenery and slipping into little one-piece bodysuits. Their tiny hands and fingers are a great advantage when it comes to making puppets and their high-pitched, piping voices often go well with puppet characters – which are quite often dwarfs in any case, ha ha!
Dwarfs are also well-represented among authors, probably because of their above-average intelligence and creativity, which are, however, of a very special kind. As a general rule, it’s easy to laugh AT dwarfs but difficult to laugh WITH them. There are several purely dwarf theatres in Bookholm, but I can only (after a few personal experiments) advise non-dwarfs against going to them. Anyone of normal build will find it hard to make a dignified entrance through a dwarf theatre’s door and sit on its tiny seats. Moreover, the scripts and content of the plays presented can serve to intensify one’s sense of being wholly out of place and unwelcome. Like Ugglies, dwarfs have a very peculiar sense of humour and artistic ideals of their very own. To them, for example, everything big is funny on principle. In a dwarf theatre, the mere mention of a giant or a skyscraper, a tower or a barn door, can evoke prolonged laughter.
By contrast, things that are very small are taken fanatically seriously. Objects which we sometimes find amusing, like tall top hats, pointed caps or high-heeled shoes, are regarded by dwarfs with quasi-religious reverence, and laughing in the wrong place at a dwarf theatre can result in your being immediately barred from the premises – as I myself discovered. We creatures of normal stature like to reach for the stars in our imagination and dream of other planets, whereas many dwarf plays deal with journeys into the Microcosmos, a world where everything is far smaller even than dwarfs themselves. I discovered only later that MICROPIA, the ABSENT TEENIES’ miniature city, was created and run by dwarfs. I could have figured that out for myself!
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On mature consideration, I must also advise against patronising Bookholm’s BLOOD THEATRES, even though these are extremely popular and can sometimes be well worth a visit. Only sometimes, mark you, because in hindsight their disadvantages definitely predominate and I believe that Puppetism would be no whit the poorer without these corpse-strewn aberrations. I must at once absolve Inazia from having had anything to do with my visiting a BLOOD THEATRE, because I more and more often roamed the city on my own and had strayed into one of those dubious establishments on my own initiative. Indeed, the Uggly had urgently advised me not to enter one. They were idiot fodder, she told me, but I was eager to find out for myself, so I yielded to the allure of a long queue of theatregoers and the bombastic posters outside (‘Countless brave knights slaughter each other without mercy! Historic armour! Genuine explosions! A hundred gallons of artificial blood per performance! Free peanuts!’). I had no idea what to expect. Well, if you’ve a fancy for glittering gold and silver armour, and dying knights warbling about a hero’s death, you certainly get your money’s worth. BLOOD THEATRES devote themselves to historical themes based on actual conflicts such as the BATTLE OF NURN FOREST or the Florinthian dynasty’s FIFTY-YEAR DESERT WAR. This does, admittedly, involve a considerable technical and artistic outlay, and call for specially constructed puppets, skilful pyrotechnical effects and impressive scenery. Heads must roll and limbs be hacked off. Intestines and other innards spill out. Characters scream as they burn to death onstage, are skewered by spears or blown to bits – all in the most shockingly realistic manner possible. And, these being BLOOD THEATRES, blood must naturally flow – whole torrents of it. They use a special kind of artificial blood, which is also sprayed liberally over the audience, but after the performance it miraculously disappears from their clothes of its own accord. The plot, as may well be imagined, plays a subordinate role. A play normally begins with some potentate or dictator declaring war on some other potentate or dictator in thoroughly insensitive language, and then they go at each other hammer and tongs, usually to the accompaniment of martial music. Spurting blood, clashing blades, screams of mortal agony, thunderous cannonades – no demand for dialogue. The latter occurs only in the numerous monologues by characters at death’s door, which are usually sung. Why anyone should break into song when he’s dying, even in a theatre, is something that escapes me and always arouses my amusement or annoyance. Mind you, this can be quite entertaining the first time, because the martial effects are truly amazing. After all, where else can you see a puppet being decapitated by a cannon ball and staggering around the stage for minutes afterwards with a fountain of blood spurting from its neck? Once the first act ended the next time I went, however, I started to pay far more attention to the audience than to what was happening onstage – and with growing distaste, because their enthusiasm soon gave me the creeps. Those people seemed to have come to the theatre filled with a desire to refight the BATTLE OF NURN FOREST or burn down some villages and cut off as many of their inhabitants’ heads as possible. After the performance they drowned their disappointment at the sad impossibility of fulfilling that ambition in one of the neighbouring inns, all of which bore names like ‘The Armageddon Arms’ or ‘The Home for Heroes’. Combined with t
Around the exits of these theatres, I was perturbed to note, lurked recruiting agents and tricksters enlisting personnel for mercenary armies. I saw some knuckleheaded individuals who, after attending a BLOOD THEATRE play, willingly signed cut-throat contracts sentencing them to employment as cannon fodder! I couldn’t help fearing that I might be hit over the head in some alleyway near one of these theatres, destined to wake up the next day as an oarsman in a war galley bound for a sea battle! In future I shall give such establishments a wide berth.
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Far more entertaining, though in an entirely different way, are the little theatres devoted to ANTI-MARTIAL PUPPETISM, all of which are situated in the vicinity of the BLOOD THEATRES so as to oppose them with the idea of non-violent puppetry. One can’t really claim that their productions even approximate to the technical standards attained by the BLOOD THEATRES’ battle scenes, far from it. On the other hand, admission is free, the music played is considerably more relaxing and the audiences are far more congenial. Nor do their plays display any real dramatic structure. All that usually appears onstage are two or three simple, hinged-jaw puppets in the form of harmless creatures like hares, tortoises, deer, or doves. These volubly expatiate on non-violence or belt out anti-war songs to guitar accompaniment. You don’t go there to follow what’s happening onstage so much as to look for people to talk to, play chess, or take part in the platform debates. Deserving of special mention are the cups of tea on offer and the biscuits that are handed around. Despite their rather strong, resinous taste, both possess qualities that take some time to develop. However, you should limit your consumption to ONE cup of tea and ONE biscuit unless you want to spend the whole night rolling around on your hotel bed in paroxysms of laughter over some stupid joke you’ll have forgotten by the next morning.
The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes