The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.30Walter Moers
Well I never, the Rusty Gnomes! The Biblionaut was reviving memories I’d long thought buried in oblivion. I was almost as infected by his sudden enthusiasm as he was himself. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell him that I’d seen similar phenomena with my own eyes. I had been in the Crystal Forest and ridden the Bookway, which glowed in the dark. Why did those memories suddenly seem so much less frightening than before? Why were they unexpectedly making me feel nostalgic?
‘We expend vast amounts of energy in erecting tall buildings that tower into the air,’ said the Biblionaut, ‘and can collapse in the slightest earthquake or tornado. We build towns beside the sea or big rivers, where they can be destroyed by spring tides or floods – we even build towns on the slopes of dormant volcanoes or in deserts, where they’re parched by the pitiless sun. We nonsensically scale mountain peaks on which the air is too thin to breathe. Nobody questions that, but when we suggest building a city down into the earth, where it’s protected from the elements, from cold and heat, frost and rain, hail and lightning, wind and weather, people say we’re mad. The ground is the best shelter of all. Many animals know and take advantage of that, but we ignore it. It was different once upon a time. The early inhabitants of the Labyrinth must have known things we’ve forgotten. There used to be flourishing civilisations down there, highly developed cultures and urban life – and they still exist today. Think of the Booklings! They lead a sheltered and highly civilised existence in the catacombs. They’re said to be incredibly old, in fact, they’re even rumoured to be immortal! Read Yarnspinner’s book. The Leather Grotto makes an ideal habitat for civilised creatures.’
It was all I could do not to grin. The Booklings, yet! I would never have believed that a Bookhunter, of all people, could make me feel nostalgic for the catacombs, but it was true. I was on the verge of throwing back my cowl and revealing my identity.
‘The Rusty Gnomes – they’re a subject in themselves,’ the Biblionaut pursued eagerly. ‘Their hitherto unresearched technologies and literature could be an inexhaustible aid to opening up the catacombs, for they were in advance of us in many ways. By mathematically calculating the advantages of gradients and declivities, ups and downs, they were able to traverse the catacombs at a speed of which we up here can only dream. We could renovate the Bookway and turn it back into the ingenious transport system it used to be. I’ve seen some extremely complex technical structures down there: elevators, flywheels, gigantic chain hoists. Rusty and dilapidated, but only apparently devoid of purpose. If we ever deciphered those mechanical ruins – which is only a question of time – we could probably reconquer Netherworld far more rapidly than we now hope and dream. We’re like children who live on top of a brimming treasure chamber and don’t dare open it because they think an evil spirit dwells within. We must bring more light into the catacombs, then the evil spirits will flee them like rats and vermin.’
There was no stopping the Biblionaut now. I had no need to interpolate any more questions; he grew more and more rhapsodic. I seemed to hear him crackle like a charged alchemical battery, but it was probably just his cloak rustling. ‘The ancient civilisations that made their home down there,’ he lectured on, raising a forefinger, ‘were well aware that it afforded the ideal conditions in which to establish large-scale libraries. No injurious sunlight! Low humidity! That’s why Bookholm is still the epicentre of Zamonian literature and the entire book trade. We are still profiting from that forgotten faith in Netherworld and its age-old treasures. And we haven’t even scratched the surface of the resources offered us by that dark world down there! There are metals to be mined of which no alchemist knows. Golden coal that burns for ever. Oil that runs up walls and whispers. Black diamonds the size of houses. The Rusty Gnomes are said to have mined vast quantities of Zamonium down there. And we still know nothing about the fauna. Nothing at all! We can’t even guess what can be evolved by a biology that doesn’t have to squander its energy on shielding itself from sunlight. I wouldn’t even talk about some of the creatures I’ve seen down there for fear of being declared insane.’
The masked stranger laid a hand on my arm.
‘Believe me, we Biblionauts are far more aware than anyone else of the dangers lurking in the catacombs. That’s our profession. But we also try to gain a rational understanding of those threats and explain them, not exaggerate and magnify them. Enlightenment, that’s one of our tasks. We don’t concoct old wives’ tales about Book Dragons and “Fearsome” Booklings, as the old-time Bookhunters did. You don’t solve problems by embellishing them with horror stories. Most people don’t venture into the catacombs because their fears are greater than the actual dangers that exist down there. That’s the Bookhunters’ destructive legacy and we’re still having to combat it!’
One of the stagehands engaged in clearing up bumped into some scenery, which fell over with a crash. The Biblionaut seemed suddenly to awaken from a trance. He released my arm and straightened up.
‘Heavens!’ he said. ‘I’ve been talking nineteen to the dozen. Where are my manners?’
The auditorium was deserted save for us and the stagehands getting ready for the next performance. We got to our feet at last.
‘Please forgive a lonely Biblionaut, but perhaps I can offer you a little compensation. You’re clearly interested, not only in puppet theatre, but in conditions in the catacombs, so perhaps I’ll take the liberty of giving you a tip. I know of no institution in Bookholm that could teach you more about both subjects – in the most exceptional manner. Here …’ He handed me a small card, which I accepted with thanks. Then he gave me a little bow, wished me a pleasant stay, and went out.
Staring after him, I couldn’t help feeling yet again that I’d already met him at some stage in my life. I tried to shake off the sensation by examining the card he’d given me. It was blank, so I thought I must be looking at the wrong side. I turned it over, but the other side was equally blank. He’d given me a piece of white card, nothing more. Was it a joke? A mistake? A Biblionaut’s sense of humour? Puzzled, I put it in my pocket and left the theatre too. The daylight outside was dazzling.
1 Dr Fidemus Grund: celebrated Zamonian psychoanalyst and founder of night-mareology. His most important work: Nocturnal Unease, Caput & Co., Grailsund. (Tr.)
Puppetism of Absolute Perfection
WHEN I WASN’T out and about with Inazia or going to the theatre on my own, I often went to the Kraken’s Tentacle. This was one of Bookholmian Puppetism’s most important institutions – the first and still the best emporium for puppet-makers and puppeteers, producers and property masters, because it stocked simply everything that was regularly required by those and related professions. It was at once a warehouse, a workshop, a coffee house, a rendezvous, a first-aid post for injured puppets, an assembly point for striking puppeteers, an authors’ debating society, a university, a museum and a library. Like many of the city’s theatres, it was open around the clock. The staff consisted of a dozen Midgard dwarfs. Though usually overworked and ill-tempered, they were not only very informative when it came to questions about Puppetism, but positively omniscient, each in his different field.
The huge establishment, which comprised three floors, smelt of coffee and rubber, machine oil and glue, wet paint and turpentine, and was permanently filled with the sounds of hammering, sawing, conversation, oaths and laughter. There were marionette strings of all gauges on the roll, arms and legs moulded in a wide variety of materials, thousands of puppets’ eyes, blanks for wooden heads, paints and brushes, ready-made costumes, sacks of wood wool, sheets of canvas in all sizes, black all-over bodysuits for puppeteers, ready-made ventriloquist’s puppets, cut-out silhouettes for shadow theatres, powdered magnesium for rubbing on hands, buckets of plaster, lumps of clay in damp cloths, stacks of slabs of plasticine, thunder sheets for sound effects technicians, ushers’ uniforms, reference books of all kinds, curtain material, preprinted posters – everything, in fact, that a stage artiste could require. Even boxes for sawing in h
The Uggly had strongly recommended the Kraken’s Tentacle to me on the grounds that its book section stocked the best and most comprehensive collection of technical literature on Puppetism. You could spend hours lounging around there, reading books on your feet without having to buy them. Also on offer – free of charge, what’s more – was fresh coffee, theatre folk’s principal form of sustenance. While rummaging among the books or leafing through them, I was able to observe many a notable incident, and overhear and make a note of dialogue that could be useful to my studies. I eavesdropped on puppeteers loudly arguing about how puppets should be operated, why marionettes were preferable to stick puppets (or vice versa) and what type of wood was essential for their manufacture. On the stairs between the floors there were heated debates over the content, style and stagecraft of current productions. Ventriloquists tried out new puppets among the shelves, vocalists and puppeteers practised their synchronous acts together. There was always something going on, even in the small hours. Two long-armed puppeteers almost came to blows over whether or not puppets’ joints should be lubricated. One of them said you shouldn’t inflict squeaks on the audience, whereas the other complained that oil made your hands slippery. Their altercation became so deafening, they were ejected from the premises and continued their argument in the street. All I heard after that was the sound of slaps being exchanged. Although I’m not in favour of physical violence, I must confess that this scene not only amused me but actually justified my studies. I had completely forgotten that it was possible to pursue a profession with such passion that it put one’s health in jeopardy. How far removed from that was my own elitist pen-pushing in Lindworm Castle!
The library of the Kraken’s Tentacle extended over two floors of the huge building and was really remarkably well stocked. It included not only modern technical literature but also a unique store of antiquarian books on subjects such as puppet-making, dramaturgy, lighting, stage technique, scene painting and many other theatrical arts ranging from make-up to sound effects and conjuring. Does that sound like fascinating reading? No. Was it an adventure in reading nonetheless? Definitely so! Why? Well, I was wholly uninterested in whether or not puppets’ joints should be lubricated with machine oil, or how to bake a puppet’s china head, or how to light a scene perfectly with candles and mirrors. I had no desire to become a puppeteer or a scene painter. But if one patiently assembled the history of Bookholmian Puppetism out of all those separate components, a saga of positively epic dimensions took shape: a magnificent mosaic composed of fascinating elements and scenes, with countless protagonists and myriad anecdotes. And a history of modern Bookholm into the bargain! In short, a read that was equal, if not vastly superior, to many a great novel. And I include my own in that statement!
I had found the material for my book! More than that, I had scratched a vein of gold, struck oil, opened a treasure chamber, broached an inexhaustible reservoir that was plain for all to see but had never been exploited by anyone as I proposed to exploit it. And for me, writing non-fiction was an entirely new departure. I would never have dreamt of trying to succeed at that genre, never! Non-fiction was really just for academics and experts on Old Zamonian sitting in dusty records offices, poring over ancient reference books, deciphering hieroglyphs and scanning papyri through magnifying glasses. I had never given such things a thought until now, but the history of Puppetism was turning out to be a combination of thriller, comedy, encyclopaedia, drama and art history – an immense surprise packet.
So I spent a lot of time at the Kraken’s Tentacle, fishing one book after another out of the shelves, more or less at random, and reading or dipping into it until it ceased to interest me any longer. I would then move on to the next, sometimes simply because it was the next in line on the shelf. It might be in the middle of a popular puppet-maker’s biography, or in the introduction to a book on the manufacture of miniature costumes, that I discovered the next fragment of my mosaic. A little chapter here, a footnote there, a woodcut there and a bibliographical reference elsewhere. My notebook was steadily filling up. Sometimes the whole of an appallingly boring book would contain just one single sentence that struck me as useful, but it, in its turn, could open up entirely new side caves in my treasure chamber. Reading other people’s books, a pastime I’d almost abandoned, being so preoccupied with my own work, was an adventure that now captivated me as much as it had in my earliest youth. Reading, reading, just reading and forgetting about one’s own miserable existence! I’d completely forgotten what a blissful state that could be. Fortunately, the Kraken’s Tentacle was always so busy that a cowled Lindworm standing around in the library and leafing through one book after another attracted no attention. Besides, I’d made it a habit at the end of each visit to buy a few of the books that seemed most useful to me and take them back to the hotel. If the staff noticed me at all, therefore, they thought of me at most as a regular paying customer.
What books did I read? From Rag Doll to Micromechanical Marionette, Planar Puppetism Versus Three-Dimensionality in the Theatrical History of Bookholm, Adventures in Rubber-Moulding, Uggsistentialist Drama Before and After Beula Smeckett – I doubt there could be any titles more off-putting to a normal readership, yet those were some of the books most in demand at the Kraken’s Tentacle, and I devoured them all.
From its beginnings in the makeshift puppet theatres beside the devastated city’s nightly campfires to the Puppetocircus Maximus and its many competitors in modern Bookholm, Puppetism had a colourful process of development behind it full of bold innovations, fanciful abstractions, artistic aberrations, creative ventures, and advances and backward steps of all kinds. It was, so to speak, a cultural history of Zamonia in miniature, all reduced to the confines of the city and the circle of Puppetist initiates. This additionally lent the subject a theatrical element, namely, a stage that was visible at a glance. The players? A few hundred theatre folk, a few thousand puppets and countless theatregoers. Magnificent material drawn from real life, my friends! So let me at least try to acquaint you with it in condensed form, just as I myself absorbed it: like an industrious but aimless bee that is tempted by this or that beautiful bloom and eventually bears its store of pollen home.
There were shelves full of instructions for the manufacture of puppets out of wood, paper, metal, glass, rubber, straw, or wire. These I was soon done with because I only skimmed them. There is hardly a material from which puppets cannot be made or with which they cannot be decorated, filled, or stabilised. Shells, paper, beads, paste, china, wood wool, shavings, wax, grass, sand, coal, gold, silver, even genuine diamonds – all have been used. Then I got out works on the manufacture of complicated eye mechanisms and articulated skeletons of wood and metal, books on clockwork puppets and the manufacture of giant marionettes. Indigestible fare, those purely technical instructions – I scarcely understood them, to be honest, but I did my level best, for those were arts in themselves. Many practitioners competed at them, each after his own manner and each with his own effect on Puppetism’s stylistic development – and, thus, on those who determined its content. All this was important, so I couldn’t skip anything for lack of interest or ignore it out of mental laziness, often though I was tempted to do so. I remember groaning so loudly while reading a book on glass-blown puppets that one of the sales assistants, a dwarf, asked me if I had heart trouble.
I was relieved, therefore, when I could finally turn to the art and history sections of the library in the Kraken’s Tentacle. At last! It contained some genuinely exciting stuff, and that was when I really began to browse. No matter how ingenious their exterior and intricate their mechanical innards, what use would puppets be if the scripts of the plays in which they performed were no good – if the content, the ideas, the dialogue, the artistic intentions were of no account? They would then be no more than expensive walking cadavers, good to look at but devoid of true animation. What mattered most to me was that part of Puppetism wh
For a start, I learned that Puppetism must not be conceived of as a single, purposefully growing plant – not as a big tree or shrub with numerous branches, oh no, but as a whole, multifarious rain forest in which everything grew in different directions, and in which new growths were forever being promoted by mutual pollination and fertilisation – and, of course, by the never-ending fight for survival. All attempts by the authorities to curtail and tame it by means of laws, regulations or censorship had failed over the years. Experimental theatres had been banned and closed, only to reopen somewhere in the underground and attain cult status with the public. If you want a work of art to be a lasting success, you have only to get it strictly prohibited; that had always been the best method. Plays were placed on the black list, but they continued to be performed in secret and developed into modern classics. To flog the botanical metaphor a trifle harder: Puppetism reminded me of the neglected garden behind my godfather Dancelot’s house, which was always abandoned to the wind and weather. ‘One doesn’t go into a garden to work,’ Dancelot used to say, ‘but to enjoy it. For goodness’ sake don’t hoe it! There’s nothing more beautiful in the spring than weeds.’
Yes, like a garden whose gardener had died, Puppetism embraced a gallimaufry of styles in countless variations. Far from coexisting peacefully, however, they competed fiercely, at least in the early years, for this young art form certainly wasn’t a tame affair. On the contrary.
In order to understand the conflicts that smouldered inside Puppetism, one must first learn to distinguish between the champions of various styles and their motives. In the beginning there were only the Marionettists, who categorically condemned the practice of touching a puppet with the hands during a performance, and the exponents of Manual Puppetism, who joined with the Stick Puppetists in categorically rejecting the use of strings. That was the extent of the controversy in those days, but it sufficed to provoke lively arguments. The Marionettists declared that a puppet could be operated with little expenditure of effort by using gravity for one’s own purposes, whereas a Manual Puppetist had to fight the force of gravity, which constantly tugged at his arms. A Marionettist could perform for hours without growing tired, whereas Manual Puppetists had to rest after a few minutes. The Manual Puppetists argued that a marionette moved so unnaturally that it sometimes looked positively idiotic, bumping into scenery or getting its strings entangled. When walking it only floated along, waggling its legs. ‘A marionette moves like a mouse that’s been grabbed by the scruff of the neck and held in the air,’ one popular stick puppeteer remarked scornfully. ‘It’s undignified.’ The Marionettists retorted that hand puppets didn’t even have legs.
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