The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.33Walter Moers
Having trickled some linseed oil into the crocodile’s wooden jaws, he clattered them together in an amusing way that betrayed his skill as a puppeteer, then laid it aside and recommenced his laborious progress. He reminded me of a gorgeously plumaged parrot in a gilded cage that keeps sidling from one end of his perch to the other and chattering because it has nothing else to do. Ought I to fear him or pity him? I still didn’t know. He took hold of one of the knotted strings and headed purposefully in my direction, feeling his way along the workbenches and chests of drawers. I got out my notebook so as to convey a professional impression, then remembered that he couldn’t see.
‘Perhaps we should simply begin at the beginning,’ I said in the self-important tones of a journalist. ‘How did you get into Puppetism? What brought you to Bookholm?’
Corodiak straightened a few tools on a workbench as he shuffled past it, swept some wood shavings to the floor and deposited a lead weight on top of a stack of papers. His restless hands seemed to have a life of their own. Their perpetual quest for employment captured my attention. That was all right with me; it meant I didn’t have to stare into his empty eye sockets.
‘Well,’ he began, ‘I don’t know how well-informed you are about the history of Bookholm. And about the Smyke family’s involvement with it.’
‘I, er, know very little about the latter,’ I lied brazenly.
As he shuffled onwards, Corodiak picked up a small lump of modelling clay and used four deft little hands to knead it into a small head that vaguely resembled his own. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘you may possibly have heard about my evil nephew Pfistomel. The black sheep of the family. Every child in Bookholm knows his name and his story.’ He carefully put the little modelled head down.
‘Of course,’ I replied. Had he called Pfistomel his nephew? This confirmed that he really was Hagob Salbandian. But that was quite impossible, damn it, even though he did bear a purely outward resemblance to popular notions of a zombie. And why did he call himself ‘Corodiak’? None of it made any sense. I strove to seem unimpressed and look calm, but I was becoming more and more bewildered. I felt like shouting, ‘I’m Optimus Yarnspinner, and I saw your confounded corpse in the catacombs! How do you explain that, Maestro?’ Instead, just for something to do, I scrawled some meaningless doodles in my notebook.
‘So you’ve heard of Pfistomel,’ he muttered as his nimble little hands switched to another string and he made a minor change of course in my direction. ‘But you probably don’t know the name Hagob Salbandian.’
I thought it best not to reply, nor did he wait for my response in any case.
‘Well, it’s a rather complicated aspect of the Smyke family history – one that few people care about today. Very few people are interested in anything that happened earlier than yesterday – it’s just how things are. To cut a very long story short, it’s like this: Hagob was my brother, whom Pfistomel murdered in a cruel and underhanded manner from the basest of motives: avaricious legacy-hunting. That’s all I wish to say on the subject. Read more about it in the municipal records if you wish! It was a disgusting business – it sullied the name Smyke for ever, and I’d prefer not to dwell on it. It doesn’t have the slightest thing to do with Puppetism, or with me either. Hagob Salbandian Smyke was my twin brother, to be precise. We were as alike as two peas in a pod, to employ a hackneyed old simile. Even our talents were similar. We were both endowed with manual dexterity.’ He raised a few of his hands and waggled them.
Twins! Well I never! A simple biological defect, a harmless genetic curiosity, and I’d once more leapt to the conclusion that I was going mad! My hypochondria was assuming such alarming proportions, I told myself I ought to consult a psychiatrist some time. Well, well! Although I wasn’t exactly ecstatic – the shock of meeting a Smyke in the flesh after all those years was still too traumatic – I did feel rather relieved under the circumstances. So Hagob and Corodiak were identical twins! That naturally explained a lot of things.
‘When I heard from our family lawyers – I was living in Florinth at the time – that my brother Hagob and Pfistomel were both missing, presumed dead, I couldn’t have cared less. The members of my family had gone their separate ways at an early stage – the Smykes always do, being devoid of sentimentality. Our family ties are very loose: the birthday cake was not invented for the Smykes, if I may put it that way. Our family feelings become aroused only when there’s something to inherit. Which wasn’t so in this case. Hagob’s property in Bookholm had been reduced to ashes and any of it that might have survived would be claimed by the Zamonian authorities, so I continued to keep my distance from the city as before. Many years went by, enabling a veil to be gradually drawn over those unpleasant events. That I ultimately went to Bookholm after all had nothing whatever to do with my family ties, only the desire cherished by nearly all educated Zamonians to pay at least one visit to this fascinating city during their lifetime. For I was, when I still had my eyes, a positively fanatical reader, a bookworm of the worst sort. My own family history had hitherto deterred me from exploring Bookholm because I feared that a Smyke would be promptly tarred and feathered if he ever showed his face here. But time is a great healer, isn’t it?’
The closer Corodiak got to me, the more nervous I became. How did one maintain eye contact with a person who possessed no eyes? Better to keep looking at his hands! He picked up a tiny puppet costume and a needle and thread, sewed on a button at lightning speed, and hung the costume neatly on a hook. And he never stopped talking for a moment.
‘At first, when I finally ventured into Bookholm, I either never mentioned my family name at all or simply, if there was no alternative, made up a false one. In a sense, Puppetism had already passed its heyday by that time. And its lowest ebb too, for it was shortly after the disastrous tavern brawl in which one puppeteer had killed another. You know the story? No matter. At all events, you’d think it was the worst possible time to develop a love of Puppetism, but any student of the stock market also knows that a slump is often the best time to invest in an industry. There was plenty of work to be had, anyway. Theatres weren’t exactly being besieged by the public, but they couldn’t simply close down just because there was a lull in demand. It was no wonder that someone with fourteen arms found employment with ease. I moved into a small apartment in Slengvort, asked around, and before long theatres were employing me nearly every day and in many different capacities. Puppet-maker, costumier, puppeteer – I turned my nose up at nothing. I possess manual dexterity, as I told you.’
Corodiak was now halfway across the room. He paused again and casually ran his fingers over a half-finished puppet clamped in a vice. Taking a piece of emery paper, he polished it a little.
‘After a year I had not only gained wide experience of Puppetism but developed quite muscular arms. And saved a small sum with which I intended to set up on my own.’ Corodiak put the emery paper down and shuffled onwards without interrupting his flow of words. ‘Don’t go thinking that I had a better perception of the historical situation than anyone else – that I had a flash of inspiration or a trailblazing vision of Puppetism, or anything like that. Nonsense!’ He laughed. ‘That’s how many exponents of Puppetism interpret it today in hindsight, but I’m afraid it wasn’t as simple or brilliant as that. Oh no, it was mainly hard work that did it. Quite simply, I instinctively did what had to be done without being able to give it much thought. That’s how the best things often come about, believe me. For a nominal price – for as good as nothing – I acquired a small puppet theatre that had just gone bankrupt and made desperate efforts to get it back in business. In so doing, I conformed to a very simple principle: I employed only the best people: the most skilful puppeteers, the most creative directors, the most talented playwrights, the most imaginative stage designers and so on. Only the very best. At the time, that was far from difficult because, although there were plenty of talented Puppetists in Bookholm, the art form itself was stagnating. As I said, it all happened without muc
Corodiak tidied some pencil sketches lying on a table. Seeing him run his little hands over the wafer-thin pencil lines, I realised that he could ‘see’ them with his fingers.
‘As far as I was concerned,’ he went on, ‘anything that aroused an audience’s interest was permissible. Suspense, humour, fantasy, technical precision and meticulous craftsmanship, caustic satire, improvisation, emotional profundity – they weren’t mutually exclusive. All of them at once was best! Shrewd theatregoers – and they’re what matters – don’t like categories. They abhor boundaries and limitations, and they don’t like seeing their expectations fulfilled on the stage or the results of statistical surveys. Those are wishful thinking on the part of lazy-minded, uncreative Puppetists! Good audiences like a challenge, that’s my motto! And that’s what I gave them. Corodiak became a trademark in Bookholm. Why go to a traditional play when you can see a Corodiak production? Why settle for mediocrity when you can get the best for the same money? People would sooner go to the same Corodiak play three times than see three poor ones.’
Whenever I tried to ask a question, the Maestro’s narrative flow forestalled me. It may have been a rehearsed speech which he felt impelled to deliver like an experienced tourist guide, but that didn’t diminish my interest in it.
‘I was soon in a position to buy up more and more theatres, and I ran them all in accordance with the same standards of quality. By this time my membership of the Smyke family was a secret no longer – I’d had to put my real name to too many official documents – but I found to my surprise that no one was particularly interested any more. And after all, I was Hagob Salbandian’s twin brother, not Pfistomel’s. I belonged to the reputable side of the Smyke family. We aren’t all evil, you know.’
Corodiak was so near me now, he no longer had to raise his voice. I could see every blemish on his skin. How old was he? What had happened to his eyes? And what had those eyes seen before he came to Bookholm? Those were only some of the questions I dared not ask.
‘And then the mayor of Bookholm personally suggested that I build the Puppetocircus Maximus,’ he said. ‘With loans at a favourable rate of interest, tax reliefs, no building regulations and so on. I didn’t hesitate for a moment, as you can imagine.’
‘Of course. Did you design the building yourself?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ he replied with a smile. ‘It was a crazy idea, really, constructing a solid stone building in the shape of a tent. To carry out such a plan despite my own misgivings demanded nerves of steel I no longer possess. Still, everyone has come to terms with the design since. Even I have!’ He laughed. ‘The theatre has become a Bookholm landmark.’
His hands had suddenly come to rest. He had let go of the web and folded them on his chest. Corodiak was now immediately in front of me, only a body’s width away.
‘I subordinated everything to the Puppetocircus Maximus,’ he said, very softly now, ‘even my own state of health. Do you know what I consider to be the best thing that can happen to you? That an idea you have becomes bigger than you yourself thought it was. In my case it was this theatre. It attained dimensions – dimensions in every respect – of which I never even dreamed.’ He paused for a moment and cleared his throat.
‘The building was still unfinished when the trouble with my eyes began. The doctors told me they’d never come across anything of the kind before. Some of them still contend to this day that it’s a disease from the Labyrinth – a tiny parasite, invisible even through a microscope, that feeds on eyes! It allegedly exists only in the deepest depths of the catacombs. Well, I’ve never been in the catacombs at all, far less the deepest ones, and it doesn’t matter anyway, because the disease is incurable. My eyes simply disappeared and there was no remedy. The strangest thing was, I felt no pain at all. My sight was rather blurred for quite a while, but then …’ Corodiak broke off. He leant against a workbench, breathing heavily.
I felt rather queasy for a moment. I only hoped that the frightful parasite had disappeared like Corodiak’s eyes and wasn’t infectious. I dearly wished he wouldn’t enlarge on this subject.
‘When I finally accepted the fact that I would lose my eyesight,’ he continued, ‘no matter how many faith healers and quacks I allowed to tinker with me, I threw myself into my work as never before. I sketched the designs for so many puppets, mechanisms and stage effects, we still haven’t managed to make them all or try them out and we’ll subsist on them for a long time to come.’
Corodiak pointed to the big stacks of paper that were lying around in various places. Some of the drawings were pinned to the walls, which were plastered with structural diagrams, columns of figures and small sketches.
‘When the Puppetocircus Maximus gave its first premiere I was already completely blind. I attended it in total darkness, but believe me, I saw everything that happened onstage. In here.’ Corodiak tapped his forehead with one of his tiny fingers.
‘I had not only speeded up the construction of the scent organ with all my might, but designed and developed a mechanical orchestra capable of performing the entire repertoire of classical Zamonian music, plus some of my own compositions as well. I had engaged the best sound effects technicians, the most talented playwrights, and the most resonant singers and speakers. I also engaged Murkholmian organists famed for their virtuosity and trained them myself to get the most out of the scent organ. I wanted to create a theatre in which it didn’t matter if one was sighted or not. And, in a desperate frenzy of inspiration, I developed things that far exceeded the theatre’s requirements. Thanks to my experiments and my research into Puppetism, I evolved all the ideas that eventually gave birth to the Invisible Theatre.’ Corodiak grinned. ‘I assume that’s why you’re here, isn’t it? You’re one of these journalists who want to winkle the tricks of the trade out of me, am I right?’ He laughed and I couldn’t tell if he’d meant the question seriously or not.
‘The Invisible Theatre is an idea of yours?’ I asked in surprise. ‘I didn’t know that, really not. And no, I’m not a journalist. I’m a … er, scholar working on my own behalf.’ My real name almost slipped out, but I just managed to restrain myself. I could for the first time hear noises on the floor below us.
‘A scholar working on your own behalf, I see.’ Corodiak drawled the words. ‘Very well, I believe you. Not that it matters in any case. The secrets of the Invisible Theatre can’t
There was nothing fanatical about his words, though they may convey that impression when written down. What he said sounded quite axiomatic, and his serene self-confidence impressed me more than any fiery oration.
‘The Invisible Theatre is still in its infancy, but believe me, it will one day render all this puppetry, this monstrous ballet, this whole Puppetocircus Maximus, completely redundant! At first it worked for me alone and continued to do so for a long time, at least in this theatre. It was only when staging the Yarnspinner play that I ventured to try it out on a big audience and leave a puppet – that of the Shadow King – solely to their imagination. With overwhelming success, I might add! But the real Invisible Theatre takes place somewhere quite else, before a hand-picked audience. And I can promise you one thing: we’re considerably more experimental there – positively revolutionary, in fact. We’ve ventured into areas of Puppetism which other people wouldn’t dare even to dream of.’
The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes