The labyrinth of dreamin.., p.28
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       The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.28

           Walter Moers
 

  * * *

  CULINARY PUPPETISM. Although this sounds quite delicious at first hearing, closer acquaintanceship reveals it to be among the most unappetising aberrations of the new art form I’ve ever come across. It involves staging puppet plays in big marquees at the same time as the audience is served a meal comprising many courses. At the same time, be it noted, not during the intervals. I found that just as tasteless as the unspeakable BLOOD THEATRES. Those who fill their stomachs simultaneously empty their brains. I felt sleepy after one course, nor was my concentration aided by the clatter and tinkle of cutlery and crockery, the audience’s lip-smacking and belching (and worse!), and the constant comings and goings of the waiters and wine waiters. The puppetry was uninspired and mechanical because the players secretly knew that the audience was more interested in its broccoli-on-the-side than in their art. In my opinion, it’s as tactless and disrespectful to eat a meal during a cultural function as to perform a play during a meal.

  * * *

  UGGSISTENTIALIST PUPPETISM. One ought to go to one or two plays of this genre in order to be able to pronounce on it. More would be unnecessary or even injurious to one’s mental health, so be warned!

  Needless to say, the Ugglies had also discovered puppetry in Bookholm and developed an offshoot of it. Being under Inazia’s strict supervision, I was occasionally – and regrettably – obliged to sample its curious efflorescences. Although the shrewd antiquarian bookseller had excellent taste in other respects, when it came to applied Puppetism, I fear I must in this instance charge her with a form of professional blindness specific to Ugglies. This compelled me to spend many an excruciating hour sighing and groaning in cramped little underground theatres; more precisely, root-infested holes in the ground teeming with the millipedes and earthworms that Ugglies favour for their theatrical performances. It should be said that, although they certainly have a sense of humour, the latter is so peculiar, it’s fully comprehensible to Ugglies alone. They possess what I would term an ‘elliptical view of the world’. This begins by leaving the viewer far behind and then, like a boomerang, returns to its source in a wide arc. It’s connected with the Ugglies’ talent for prophecy and has ideological consequences, which will be examined more closely at a later stage.

  The most popular puppet play in the Uggsistentialist canon is entitled ‘Waiting for Yogibeard’ and was written by a talented Ugglian playwright named Beula Smeckett, who enjoys the highest esteem in Ugglian circles. It tells how two Ugglies sit beneath a leafless tree and do nothing but wait for a third Uggly who never shows up. The theme of the play may be despair at the futility of existence, but wouldn’t it be possible to handle the subject in a somewhat more entertaining and less redundant way? And to be honest, hasn’t this outlook on the world become a bit long in the tooth these days – if a world outlook can be said to have teeth? Do I really have to spend a whole evening sitting on an infuriatingly hard root-wood seat in order to arrive at that conclusion? It’s possible that at the time of its premiere (around a century ago, as Inazia informed me with a touch of pride) the play possessed a certain philosophical potency, but isn’t it also possible that this has dissipated over the years? However, the other theatregoers seemed to have quite a different opinion of ‘Waiting for Yogibeard’. They were royally entertained and clapped and laughed at every third line of the dialogue, some of which they could repeat by heart in unison with the speaker. I should, however, add that the audience (twelve in number) consisted entirely of Ugglies.

  * * *

  * * *

  Lest I create the wrong impression, though, I must stress that, at the time I studied it in Bookholm, Puppetism was in its absolute heyday. I mention the poor examples only in order to convey that such a study demands a certain amount of patience and self-sacrifice, and that those who undertake it must also put up with mediocrity and tedium. But doesn’t that apply to every art form?

  As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, my quick-witted brothers and sisters in spirit, I was evolving a plan to write a book about Puppetism. One such as didn’t yet exist. There already existed whole stacks of specialised works on the subject, but they all dealt with individual aspects of it. None of them took an overall view. I proposed to fill that gap with the kind of book I’d never written before. Nor had anyone else. Just as my new red scales had lent me an almost new outward appearance (I had well-nigh stopped moulting), so I intended to reinvent myself artistically. Here in Bookholm, where I had once become a writer, I planned to become one again.

  1 Purely by the by, should a similar honour ever be bestowed on yours truly, I’d like to suggest that the appropriate adjective be ‘Yarnspinneresque’. Many thanks in advance from the author!

  A Biblionaut in Three Acts

  WHEN MY STUDY of Puppetism was already far advanced, it so happened that I got into conversation with a Biblionaut. I had often encountered those weird individuals, who bore such a perturbing resemblance to Bookhunters, on my daily explorations of the streets and alleyways, antiquarian bookshops and markets, and also when attending cultural functions. However, it would never have occurred to me to speak with one of them! I have no wish to gloss over any part of that curious conversation, nor will I deny that it had its sinister and alarming aspects. I must admit, though, that I didn’t find it at all unpleasant, in fact, in retrospect it even struck me as informative, let’s say. Anyway, it fundamentally changed my view of Biblionauts.

  In the course of my studies I went to one of those awful medieval dramas in which puppet knights clad in shining armour warbled doggerel about heroism and patriotism, then slaughtered each other to spectacular effect. I’m referring to a Blood Theatre play, as can well be imagined. Inexhaustible fountains of artificial blood were gushing, the din of battle was ear-splitting and the background music was utterly inappropriate. All these things were tolerable only in the interests of my research into Puppetism. The one redeeming feature was that the seat beside me had remained unoccupied, which gave me more elbow room.

  The first act had been in violent progress for quite a while, and a fair-haired knight with blood spurting from several wounds was hymning the beauty of a hero’s death, when my next-door neighbour made a belated appearance and claimed his seat. He was, I was utterly horrified to note, a Biblionaut!

  I had an urge to jump up with a scream and dash outside, vaulting over all the intervening rows of seats.

  For a Bookhunter, however, his mask and outfit were comparatively unperturbing and unintimidating. He wore an ankle-length hooded cloak of gnarled, dark-brown leather. His cowl, which was raised, concealed neither a demonic gargoyle nor a stylised insect’s head, just a face mask with grilles for the eyes and mouth. This lent him an almost elegant and athletic appearance, like a fencer’s mask. His only warlike attributes were his gloves, which had iron spikes riveted into them, and the spurs on his boots. I couldn’t see any weapon, but that he probably kept hidden under his cloak.

  Something prevented me from making a run for it. I simply remained seated, paralysed by a mixture of fear, fascination and good manners. The Biblionaut was equally well-mannered. I’m bound to admit that I’ve seldom sat next to anyone at a cultural function who knew how to behave so impeccably. He didn’t talk during the performance, either to me or to his other immediate neighbour. He had no nervous tics like jiggling his knees or drumming his fingers, he didn’t pick his nose, shuffle his feet, or produce a bag of nuts and noisily crunch them. He was, quite simply, the ideal theatregoer. He remained sitting exactly as he had sat down, and when I say exactly, I mean it! The Biblionaut didn’t budge an inch throughout the first act, but remained glued to his seat. The only sounds I detected coming from his direction were an occasional buzz or hum, but those were probably made by the flies circling us in the gloom.

  His behaviour was so impeccable, it struck me as almost bizarre. I kept watching out of the corner of my eye to see if I could catch him moving, but he didn’t stir. Not a muscle! Only when the first act ended did he
rather stiffly move his arms and hands, and join in the applause. He clapped precisely six times, then lowered his arms, turned his head slowly in my direction and said:

  ‘Coming here almost gives me a bad conscience, the plays are always so bloodthirsty, but I find this theatre simply magnificent. There isn’t another in Bookholm that attaches so much importance to historical accuracy where armour is concerned.’

  He spoke in a quiet, almost diffident voice. It had a monotonous, unmodulated quality, but was not disagreeable. I was speechless. This Biblionaut not only had perfect manners but seemed to possess a certain measure of intelligence.

  ‘However,’ he went on, ‘I strongly disapprove of the use of Heljaph Belcanon’s immortal piece in D major as background music for the battle scenes. A musical faux pas like that is almost more barbarous than the massacre itself.’

  ‘Y-you’re … r-right,’ I heard myself say haltingly.

  ‘I am, aren’t I?’ said the Biblionaut. ‘It’s as tasteless as the march music they used for the burial scene. But then, if one wants to hear some really appropriate background music, one should go to the Puppetocircus Maximus, shouldn’t one? Have you seen the Yarnspinner adaptation? A dream, I tell you! A genuine Puppetist masterpiece! The musical arrangements are phenomenal.’

  Now would have been my perfect opportunity to escape. The interval had come. I could have stood up and excused myself, pleading a call of nature, and surreptitiously sneaked out of the theatre. It was now or never!

  ‘I have had that pleasure,’ I blurted out instead, and remained seated.

  ‘Then you know what I’m talking about,’ said the masked stranger. ‘The first time I heard Gipnatio Sacrem’s intermezzo accompanying the king’s departure from Shadowhall Castle, tears came to my eyes! Tears! And they have done every time since. I’ve already seen the play five times. Fantastic! Do you know Yarnspinner’s book?’

  ‘Er … no …’ I lied.

  ‘Lucky devil! Then you can still read it for the first time! How I envy you!’

  For a moment I thought the Biblionaut had recognised me and was playing a sarcastic game, but he went on:

  ‘It always sounds a bit blinkered when someone says they have a favourite book, but in this case I simply can’t deny it: I know of no better book about Bookholm, period, and there it is. I’ve read it again and again! Get hold of a copy, you won’t regret it.’

  That was that, dear friends! Instantly disarmed, I melted like butter on a hotplate. He could have told me that he kept severed heads stacked in his wardrobe or quaffed Booklings’ blood in the catacombs, and I’d still have found him likeable. I loved this masked stranger – I yearned to fling my arms round his neck! He had read a book of mine. Several times, what was more, and he thought it wonderful! Could there be any greater proof of his intelligence and discrimination? Hardly! He had earned himself carte blanche from me – freedom to do anything! As far as I was concerned, he was welcome to pursue a sideline as a serial murderer or an executioner; it wouldn’t have diminished my liking for him.

  ‘You’re … a Bookhunter?’ I asked stupidly, meaning to make at least some contribution to the conversation. Bookhunter? Now I’d put my foot in it! What an idiot!

  ‘We prefer the professional designation Biblionaut,’ he replied in measured tones. ‘It may sound a trifle pompous, I grant you, but ask yourself this: Aren’t we literally afloat on an ocean of books down below? But we aren’t like the barbarous old-time Bookhunters, who were lawless and immoral, oh no! We resemble peaceful mariners and fishermen peacefully competing under strict juridical rules. We may cut a competitor’s net adrift from time to time, but never his throat. That’s a mark of progress, isn’t it?’ He laughed softly.

  ‘Please forgive me,’ I said. I was about to make a fitting apology, but he cut me short by raising a leather-gauntleted hand.

  ‘Simply picture Bookholm as a city beside the sea with a prosperous harbour full of boats that go out every day. But instead of fish and crustaceans we catch books and manuscripts in our nets. And instead of selling marine fauna to markets and restaurants, we convert antiquarian books into money in bookshops and libraries. I think Biblionautics is a good description of what we do.’

  I nodded submissively.

  ‘I know it’s a naively romantic metaphor,’ he said with a shrug, ‘but it’s one of the things you need down there, or you’ll go insane. A simple dream you can dream again and again without having to think too much. I often dream of the sea when I’m making my way through the catacombs – of being on the high seas and seeing a horizon I’ll never reach. Of clouds and blue sky. A touch of marine romanticism keeps me going.’ He gave another gentle laugh behind his mask. ‘Though there’s nothing in the least romantic about what we do in the catacombs. It’s a science. A very dangerous science. Being a Biblionaut is the toughest job in the world, you know.’

  ‘Do you employ Colophonius Regenschein’s methods to get your bearings?’ I asked, anxious to display some knowledge of the subject.

  The Biblionaut turned his masked face in my direction and remained silent for a while – a perturbing sight.

  ‘Yes … and no,’ he replied slowly. ‘Yes, because Biblionautics would be inconceivable without Colophonius Regenschein and his writings. You can compose a fugue without being able to read music, but you can’t paint a body well unless you know your anatomy and you can’t erect a building unless you’ve a grasp of statics. Regenschein’s book contains the seeds of all that Biblionauts do today. We can now discover the location of a valuable book with the aid of a few old documents, a slide rule, a syllabic septant, and a vertical compass, but that is possible only because Regenschein provided us with the basic methods. He supplied the alphabet with which we now spell Biblionautics.’

  I was dumbfounded for a moment, but less by his well-chosen words and the intelligence and courtesy with which he spoke than because of a thoroughly odd and inexplicable sensation that had suddenly come over me: I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was personally acquainted with the person speaking behind that mask!

  ‘Yes and no,’ he went on. ‘No, because Regenschein is, of course, completely out of date today.’ He gave another laugh. ‘His book abounds in errors. The Catacombs of Bookholm is teeming with mistaken conclusions and fanciful theories. It’s almost like the oneirocritical writings of Dr Fidemus Grund.1 Regenschein and Grund are founders of entire scientific disciplines. Geniuses both, oh yes, but read them today and you can’t stop laughing. That’s the fate of all pioneers. They’re confronted by so much that’s new, they just can’t afford to use reliable scientific methods. You mustn’t look left or right when you conquer new terrain, you must blindly forge on straight ahead. That doesn’t detract from their achievements, though. Don’t misunderstand me, but the wheel of history has turned since Regenschein’s death. If you ask a Biblionaut of today whether he takes his cue from Colophonius Regenschein, it’s like asking a writer if he can read.’

  I strove to calm down. My feeling that I knew this masked stranger was nonsensical, of course. There was probably something about his voice that reminded me of some acquaintance – a similar way of speaking or choice of words. Either that, or it was simply a cerebral reflex. If you talk to someone who hides his face, you try to find some something familiar.

  ‘Please permit someone who hasn’t been to Bookholm for a long time to ask another naive question,’ I replied. ‘How did the Biblionauts come to appear on the scene? You didn’t simply spring up overnight, surely – or is that a professional secret?’

  ‘Not at all, but in order to answer that I must go back a bit further, if you’ll allow me.’ He opened his cloak for the first time, probably because he was feeling too warm. I now saw that he was indeed carrying a weapon, namely, an elegant sword with an intricately chased hilt. Now that the lights were up, I saw that his cloak consisted of old leather book covers sewn together like the wallpaper in the Leather Grotto! Perhaps he’d got the idea from my book.
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  ‘The old-time Bookhunters,’ he went on, ‘were entirely driven by two simple motive forces: self-interest and greed. That was pretty much the extent of their motivation. To a Bookhunter, nothing existed but himself and the hostile world that stood between him and his quarry. Do you know the famous Rule No. 3 from The Way of the Bookhunter by Rongkong Koma? It reads: Anything alive can be killed. Anything dead can be eaten.’

  I nodded. ‘I’m familiar with it, I fear.’

  The masked figure sighed.

  ‘But Biblionauts don’t kill in order to eat, nor are they cannibals like Rongkong Koma. We do occasionally kill to avoid being killed ourselves, but in general only largish, ill-intentioned insects or rats with poisonous fangs.’

  ‘I’ve heard it said that Biblionauts have a code of conduct.’

  ‘Quite so. We subscribe to a social contract, believe it or not. It’s true we’re also loners and recluses – that’s an occupational disease of ours – but we see the full picture, the social community. We pay our dues and taxes, we conform to the rules. We don’t smuggle valuable books out of the catacombs the way the old-time Bookhunters used to. True, we bring them to the surface – that’s our profession – but we do so for all the world to see, without evading any laws. In the long term, any other way of conducting business would wreck the whole of the antiquarian book market. Only fools hawk rare books on the black market for a quick profit. The old-time Bookhunters were brainless usurpers who scoured and looted one territory after another, leaving behind nothing but scorched earth. It’s a blessing they’ve gone, because they would have wrought total destruction in the end. We Biblionauts want to preserve the catacomb system, not despoil it. It’s smarter to milk a cow than eat it. You don’t have to be exceptionally intelligent to recognise that. Every farmer understands it.’

 

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