The labyrinth of dreamin.., p.29
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       The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.29

           Walter Moers
 

  ‘When did the Biblionaut community come into being?’ I asked, somewhat emboldened now. ‘Was there an actual occasion? A date?’

  The masked stranger shook his head. ‘It’s impossible to say, exactly. We were originally a group of adventurers and bibliophiles, collectors and antiquarians – of eccentrics, if you like. We founded an association and held regular meetings in Bookholm. You know the sort of thing: lectures and technical discussions, election of a chairman, approval of the accounts and so on – we resembled a rabbit breeders’ association to begin with.’ He uttered another of his low laughs, mingled with which I suddenly thought I heard the ticking of a clock. Or was it his leather cloak creaking? The sound ceased when he went on.

  ‘And then we organised our first communal excursions into the catacombs and did a bit of rummaging for old books armed with torches and clubs. It was all just for fun at first. We used to spend the evenings together in taverns after those forays and there came a time when someone raised some fascinating questions: What if Bookhunters reappeared? How would the public react? What effect would it have on Biblionism, which was just developing in the city? What would the modern Bookhunter look like? How differently would he behave? And so on.’

  The Biblionaut opened his cloak still wider and I saw that sewn to the lining were numerous pockets containing small books. In a manner of speaking, he went around with a secret library on his person – a library that also served him as armour. Very ingenious!

  ‘Well, we all agreed that modern Bookhunters mustn’t resemble the old ones in appearance. They were killers and criminals, not role models worthy of imitation. On the other hand, if they possessed some essential feature that wasn’t really wrong but had later been regrettably perverted, why shouldn’t we give it some more thought and make it better than it ever had been? What would be reprehensible about that? The Bookhunter is a wonderfully romantic figure, after all. A bit like those knights on the stage, don’t you think? Somewhat bone-headed, alas, but marvellous to look at. Armour exerts a strange fascination, doesn’t it?’

  The stage was still being scrubbed clean of artificial blood in preparation for the next act. It struck me only now that our conversation was more interesting than anything this theatre had to offer.

  ‘Well,’ the Biblionaut went on, ‘the new Bookhunters definitely had to wear sinister armour and masks for their own protection and to deter enemies, but those costumes had to be completely redesigned. So we studied old depictions of Bookhunters and, in the process, came across another analogy with seafaring. Every Bookhunter wore an individual uniform, though that is really a contradiction in terms, because how can something uniform be individual? No Bookhunter resembled any other, yet he was immediately recognisable as one from his appearance. In that respect, Bookhunters resembled pirates! No pirate resembles any other, each being armed and attired in an original way, but you always know he’s a pirate.’

  ‘But pirates aren’t exactly peaceful seamen and fishermen,’ I ventured to object, since the masked stranger had broached this comparison himself.

  ‘True! True, I’m afraid, but being a pirate wasn’t originally a reprehensible activity. On the contrary! To begin with, most pirates were innocent seamen compelled by injustice, meagre pay, intolerable sanitary conditions and brutal oppression to make use of their last resort, mutiny, and were then unable to escape their enforced outlawry. Once a pirate, always a pirate until he ends up swinging from the yardarm, right? Well, one can’t make a direct comparison between pirates and Bookhunters, far less Biblionauts, but those occupational groups are not dissimilar in some respects and not only outwardly. Their love of adventure, for example. Or their courageous braving of the elements in order to traverse unfathomable depths and their desire to lay hands on legendary treasures. Why shouldn’t one revive such a fine, romantic idea? Why not reinvent, ennoble and perfect it? Rid it of all its negative elements? What’s wrong with that?’

  At a loss, I shrugged my shoulders.

  ‘What we still needed were two things: an icon and a vade mecum. We found our icon in the person of Colophonius Regenschein and our vade mecum in his book The Catacombs of Bookholm. That is and remains our guide, the Biblionauts’ great instruction manual. Even though the methods it prescribes seem rather antiquated today, Regenschein’s concept and ethics remain exemplary for all time. And unsurpassable! You can’t improve on the two-times table, but you can develop it into higher mathematics. Colophonius Regenschein was the first Bookhunter – and the best, too.’

  A bell rang to indicate that the interval was over and the Biblionaut adopted precisely the same position as before. He uttered not a single word throughout the next act, nor – I swear this on the ashes of my godfather Dancelot, dear friends – did he move a muscle. All I caught occasionally was the faint hum of the invisible insect.

  When the second act ended and the next interval came, he turned to me again and picked up the thread of our conversation exactly where he had left it, just as if nothing had happened in the interim – and this although some hundred knights had stertorously breathed their last on the stage and buckets of artificial blood had flowed.

  ‘Today, the world of the Biblionauts is almost as Colophonius Regenschein pictured it in his idealistic imaginings,’ the masked stranger said in his soft voice. ‘A belated development, but not too late.’

  ‘In that case,’ I rejoined, anxious to keep the conversation going, ‘the catacombs can’t be as dangerous as they used to be?’

  The Biblionaut gave me another long look, and there was a touch of pity in his voice when he replied. ‘You’ve never been down there, have you?’

  That came of asking stupid questions to which I knew the answer! I found it quite hard not to reply nonchalantly: ‘You bet I have! Probably far deeper and for a longer time than you, my friend! I went to Shadowhall Castle and met the Shadow King in person when you were still wetting your nappies, Mask-Face!’ Instead, I said humbly, ‘No, never.’

  ‘Not as … dangerous?’ This time the Biblionaut echoed my words in a sarcastic drawl. ‘The catacombs? Well, I’d say it depends on your definition of the word. Do you consider it dangerous to move around in a world where lack of oxygen may send you to sleep at any moment, possibly never to wake up. Do you consider huge caverns full of creatures with long tentacles dangerous? Eh? Do you apply the word “dangerous” to streams of lava that can incinerate you in an instant, like a sheet of paper? Or how about gases that can demolish whole tiers of tunnels if a single spark ignites them? Passages that fill up with sudden influxes of water and mud? Unheralded tectonic displacements? Unquenchable fires? All-consuming flames that have roamed the catacombs like restless spirits for the past two hundred years? Is that dangerous enough for you?’

  I decided that it might be better to say nothing at all and wait for the Biblionaut to calm down.

  ‘That unfathomable world has become considerably more unpredictable since the last great fire in Bookholm, you realise that? Never before has a fire on the surface penetrated so deep into the Labyrinth. Never before have so many supporting columns been eroded by fire or burnt away entirely. In parts, what remains down there is no more stable than a house of cards built on quicksand. The noises – the everlasting creaks and groans – are so terrifying, there are occasions when I wouldn’t dare remove a book from a bookcase, even if it appeared ten times on the Golden List! I’d be afraid it would bring everything crashing down.’

  That one sentence made it even clearer to me than the whole of his preceding lecture that he really did belong to a new generation of Bookhunters. None of the old breed would ever have admitted to being scared of anything. A Biblionaut considered it unwise and stupid not to be scared.

  ‘It often happens that some immense old library telescopes like an accordion from one moment to the next because a sudden vacuum has developed somewhere. Passages in which you were standing upright a second ago can all at once cave in on you – without any warning. Being buried alive is o
ne of the worst ways to die, wouldn’t you say, but down there you have to be prepared for it at any, literally any, moment! Why the Bookhunters of yore made life a misery for each other on top of everything else is something that defies a modern Biblionaut’s comprehension.’

  I suddenly thought of an argument that could put a little dent in the idealistic picture the masked stranger had just painted of himself. It was rather risky of me to broach the subject because I didn’t know how he would react to a sceptical question, but I had the bit between my teeth. He made a civilised impression and we were in the middle of a crowd of people. What could go wrong?

  ‘Is it true’, I said slowly, in an outwardly casual tone of voice, ‘that Biblionauts still deal in literary relics? I mean, in the severed limbs or mummified organs of dead authors?’

  He gave me yet another long look and I braced myself in readiness for a fierce verbal onslaught or even a challenge to a duel. But all he said, very softly, was, ‘You’ve touched on an unpleasant subject there, my friend. I’ll try to explain, so listen. A lot of people complain about the steadily rising prices of books on the Golden List, don’t they? But those prices are simply relative to the increased dangers prevailing in the Labyrinth. How much is a life worth and how many lives have been hazarded by most of the antiquarian treasures we bring to the surface? One? Two? Three? I’ve retrieved many valuable books from the hands of skeletons. I’m sure you’ve grasped that I’m talking about the immense risks our profession entails and thus about the need to do an occasional deal for which our own lives don’t have to hang by a thread. We may be crazy, but we aren’t insane. Ultimately, we’re business people.’

  That sounded disarmingly honest, but how much credence could I put in someone who wore a mask?

  ‘Those hands and ears and hearts and noses pickled in alcohol – all that morbid stuff is already there, you know. I can’t help that. We Biblionauts didn’t do it. We didn’t murder any authors or desecrate graves or dissect dead poets into marketable chunks. We didn’t encase Dölerich Hirnfiedler’s brain in quartz; it was the old-time Bookhunters and other criminals, the body-snatchers and grave-robbers. Besides, most relics don’t even stem from those illegal sources, but from writers’ estates! These days, a lot of artists leave their bodies to be embalmed by their heirs – and, consequently, sold by the piece! That isn’t legally prohibited. Many posthumously discovered authors make more money out of their dead bodies than all their books brought in during their lifetime! On its own, the hand Zank Frakfa wrote with has made ten thousand times what he earned from all his writings when alive. It’s a complicated subject, therefore, both legally and ethically.’ The Biblionaut gestured as if shooing away the still invisible fly that continued to buzz around us.

  ‘So these relics are now on the market and it isn’t illegal to trade in them. Antiquarian booksellers go mad for them. A signed first edition of a novel by Balono de Zacher is a fine thing in itself. But display that book in your window with the mummified hand that wrote it reposing on its cover or alongside the brain that conceived it, preserved in alcohol! What collector could resist such a treasure? Demand regulates supply. Look at it this way: it’s like the silver horns of the Great Forest tricorn. It’s sad that those animals became extinct, purely because their horns used to be sought after for superstitious reasons, but the horns still exist and are more valuable than ever before. If I acquire one today, I can rest assured that no tricorn was killed on my account. My conscience remains unsullied! I won’t bring the poor beast back to life if I don’t buy it, so why shouldn’t I trade in it?’

  He shrugged his shoulders.

  ‘You see no difference between an animal’s horn and the writing hand of … Aleisha Wimpersleake, let’s say?’ I asked.

  He thought for a moment. ‘Honestly? No. In both cases it’s a piece of dead tissue. There’s nothing special about it. Anyone who bought it I would consider sick, but for quite different reasons. He could have purchased something more meaningful for the same money or done some good with it, but he preferred to acquire a mummified hand of no practical or social value. That I find reprehensible. So, would I buy it? Never! But I’d certainly sell it. A few inanimate bones change hands instead of lying in a grave. Who gives a damn?’

  ‘And if it were your own hand?’

  The Biblionaut looked up.

  ‘Well, I wouldn’t care so long as it wasn’t cut off while I was still alive. But that’s a hypothetical question. Biblionauts don’t attain a sufficient degree of celebrity for their limbs to become sought-after commodities.’ I could have sworn he was grinning under his mask.

  The bell for the third act rang and we turned our attention to the stage again. The play had altogether ceased to interest me. I couldn’t wait for the puppets to finish slaughtering one another and enable us to continue our conversation. When the time finally came, we politely joined in the applause and went on chatting in our seats while the other theatregoers streamed towards the exit.

  ‘Thank you for our talk,’ said the Biblionaut. ‘Please excuse the fact that it was rather one-sided. I held forth at such inordinate length, but you know, that always happens when I’m up here for a few days. I then feel a overpowering urge to talk. We Biblionauts observe a code that restricts communication to a minimum when our paths cross in the catacombs. Each of us being engaged on a mission of his own, no agreements, alliances or groups should come into being – that’s the underlying sense of it. Only in cases of extreme emergency or sickness do we make contact and assist one another, but at other times … To cite one last analogy with seafaring: when two Biblionauts encounter each other in the catacombs, they resemble two ships on a foggy night. We take care not to collide and drift past each other without really meeting. We only sense the other’s presence. We may hear breathing or a rustling sound in the darkness – and then we’re alone once more. That’s why I tend to bubble over with sociability when I spend time on the surface. Don’t hold it against a lonely Biblionaut if he’s subjected you to more verbiage than Yarnspinner does in his novels.’

  I gave a start – imperceptibly, I hoped.

  ‘Don’t mention it,’ I rejoined quickly. ‘It was a privilege to learn so much about the ethos of Biblionautics. I have a different idea of it now, believe me.’

  ‘Then my speechifying has been to some purpose.’ The masked stranger chuckled. ‘Shall I tell you what Biblionauts really dream of?’

  ‘Please do!’

  ‘Well, we’d like all parts of the catacombs to become habitable some day. All parts, down to their very last twist and turn. And by “habitable” we mean transformed into a normal habitat accessible to all without exception. Even a child should be able to play safely down there, miles below us, unsupervised and free from fear or danger. That sounds a high-flown, fanciful aim, I know. It won’t be fulfilled in our lifetime, of course, but you have to set the bar high if you want to excel at the high jump. Just imagine what a unique city Bookholm could then become: a community like a majestic old tree with roots extending deep into the earth, not just a few subterranean levels accessible by means of shafts, as they are now. Oh no, that’s just the start. I’m talking about the whole Labyrinth.’

  ‘That really is a beautiful dream,’ I said cautiously.

  ‘It’s utopian as yet, but it’s feasible. All we have to do is bring light into the darkness. Have you ever held up a burning torch in a cellar infested with rats and vermin? The whole unsavoury bunch make off of their own accord. Life below ground isn’t an unnatural condition, just a largely unknown and unseen one. A vast amount of all organic life takes place below the surface. None of what we do up here would be possible without subterranean life. Just think of books. Books are made of paper, paper comes from wood, wood comes from trees, trees grow in soil, and soil is fertile only when ploughed up and manured by living creatures. Not only trees but most plants conceal the bulk of themselves below ground. A root can survive without blossoms, but never a blossom without roots. We use on
ly a small fraction of the habitat granted us and only because we have an irrational fear of the dark. Bookholm could become the most exciting city in Zamonia, if only we colonised it vertically as well as horizontally.’

  There it was again, that curious sensation! Why did this masked stranger seem so familiar to me? Was it his voice? His choice of words? His gestures? His enthusiasm? Who did he remind me of? Or was it just a sense of déjà vu? An overreaction on the part of my brain, fuelled by my multifarious experiences in recent days and evoked by the present situation? That wouldn’t be surprising. My last few days had been more eventful than a whole year spent in Lindworm Castle. After all, I was chatting with a Bookhunter!

  ‘Imagine a subterranean Bookholm,’ the Biblionaut said eagerly. ‘One in which the few buildings up here represent only the tip of the iceberg. Ten, twenty, or even a hundred times as much of the city lies below the surface as above it. And don’t think of it as a dark, sinister place, oh no! Not a dark Labyrinth fraught with shadows and dangers, but a series of festively illuminated caverns. Candlelit halls and passageways. Flights of steps, covered squares, whole boulevards ablaze with light! If we wish, we can make it brighter down there than up here on a rainy day, using specially bred luminous algae, phosphorescent fungi and jellyfish, and old and new technologies of which we still have no conception. Sunlight can be directed into the earth’s interior by means of mirrors, did you know that? I’ve seen crystals the size of trees down there which give off light like hundred-branched chandeliers, colonies of luminous, multicoloured sponges that illuminate whole cave systems. Streams of lava can be channelled and used as sources of light and heat – the Rusty Gnomes did that.’

 

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