The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.36Walter Moers
For all these reasons, I was positively delighted when we finally – I myself could hardly believe it – entered the catacombs through a disappointingly small entrance in the wall. Perhaps I was simply relieved to be back on terra firma, but I had also, more or less willingly, set foot in the Labyrinth of Dreaming Books! My exhilaration was undiminished even when the loathsome dwarf, who was walking ahead of me, turned round with a grin and said mockingly, ‘Well, Fatso, still wetting your knickers?’
Reluctant though I was to admit it to myself, the Murkholmer had actually been right: I did feel proud of my own courage. My mood was almost euphoric. I had looked a long-standing fear in the face. I had returned to the catacombs and survived, by heaven! I had neither had a heart attack nor lost my reason. Whether or not this meant that I had genuinely overcome my fear was another matter, but at least I had taken the plunge!
But it was only a fire-blackened tunnel we had traversed so far, dark and deserted as a chimney flue. There were no ancient libraries here, no worm-eaten shelves or disintegrating books, nor was there anything else that might have reminded me of my former journey into Netherworld. There was nothing here at all. The interior of a blast furnace would probably have looked much the same.
The Biblionaut beckoned to us without a word and we followed him into the next tunnel that branched off. Here we left the last of the daylight behind us, which rather dampened my initial euphoria, but our Murkholmian tourist guide lit his oil lamp and spoke a few soothing words that were doubtless directed mainly at me. ‘We’re now in what is probably the safest part of the catacombs,’ he said. ‘The exit is only a few yards off and these tunnels were completely decontaminated by the ferocious fires that raged through them. There are neither plants nor animals here – not even any microscopic life forms. It’s almost like walking through the cannula of a sterilised hypodermic syringe. The walls are composed of rock-hard coal yards thick and completely stable. Not even the entrances to the most-frequented Bookholm Shafts meet this safety standard. Please follow me, we’ll soon be there.’
So saying, he took over the lead and shepherded us along some more low, narrow passages that displayed no noticeable difference from their predecessors. At last he came to a halt halfway along one of these dark tunnels and said, ‘We’ve come here because we need to prevent any daylight from reaching us. That is the Invisible Theatre’s most important prerequisite. And now, we should like you all to gain an impression of what it’s like to be in the catacombs without any form of artificial lighting.’
Before I had really grasped his meaning, he extinguished his oil lamp and plunged us in darkness.
Utter darkness, dear friends!
It was darkness such as I hadn’t experienced since my first sojourn in the catacombs. Even when you go to bed and blow out the candle, you’re accustomed to seeing at least a hint of reflected light from somewhere, aren’t you? The glow of a street light or moonlight coming through a crack in the curtains. A sliver of light from under a door. Something you can see.
But there was nothing here but absolute darkness.
‘Hee-hee!’ the dwarf cackled inanely, but there was a hint of fear even in that little laugh. Everyone is afraid of the dark. Why? Because it’s a reminder of death.
The Murkholmer’s voice rang out in the gloom, this time with greater solemnity. ‘Esteemed members of the audience, I bid you welcome to the Invisible Theatre on behalf of Maestro Corodiak. We wish you all an entertaining time.’
I was speechless at his effrontery, but I had to admit that Maestro Corodiak clearly had a sense of humour. It was indeed a bold move to confront the audience with total darkness – and thus with what he himself saw – right at the start of the performance! It was a clever intro, because things could only get better thereafter. Even the faintest glimmer of light would come as a relief.
But nothing of the kind happened. No ray of light, no flaring match. No candle flame. The darkness persisted, as did the graveyard hush. Even the cheeky dwarf remained silent. Nobody cleared his throat, nobody coughed, nobody shuffled his feet. Not even a creak from the Biblionaut’s armour could be heard. We remained like that for a considerable time, which soon struck me as inordinately long.
I found it surprising, even rather amusing, that I seemed to lose patience more quickly in the dark than in the light. That’s enough! I thought. This wasn’t such a good idea after all! But I would sooner have bitten off my tongue than be the first to break the silence, because I fully realised that a contest had long been in progress: a silent contest between the dwarf, the bearded Druid and myself to see which of us would be the first to give way to his fear and beg for a light or lose his nerve in some other way. That alone could explain why my two companions were preserving such a stubborn silence and that alone was why I was doing so too. Indeed, I even strove not to make any loud noises. In an ordinary theatre I would probably have booed a theatrical artifice of this kind, but there was more at stake here. I wanted to teach the disrespectful dwarf which of us three was a veteran of the catacombs. Puerile and pig-headed of me though it was, I was determined to hold out. I had endured worse things in the Labyrinth of Dreaming Books than a bit of Invisible Theatre in the dark and I knew what a nerve-fraying effect on the mind these subterranean conditions could exert – in the case of a novice, after a very short time. I felt convinced that the little runt would be the first of us to fly into a panic, because I credited the taciturn Druid with more phlegm.
But I’m bound to admit, dear friends, that defiance failed to dispel my own fears. Far from it. There’s nothing relaxing about standing around in the catacombs in total darkness, especially when you have personal experience of the perils lurking there.
Sterilised or not, this tunnel was part of a cave system that teemed with all kinds of dangerous, aggressive and poisonous or otherwise menacing organisms. To that extent, my veteran’s status might not be the trump card I’d originally thought. It was, above all, the silence I felt in a positively palpable way, like a damp mist creeping into my ears. I’d experienced the ghostly hush of the catacombs before, but it had been of a different nature. Then, sounds could clearly be heard because I was close beneath Bookholm, whose muffled acoustic emanations had come to my ears, but here there was no inhabited city above us any more, just a deserted no-man’s-land.
The mist creeping into my ears became steadily more intrusive – it positively pulsated in my auditory canals. It wasn’t mist, though, but my own blood pumped by my ever more anxiously beating heart. I concentrated on it so hard that I eventually started to hear noises in the dark that couldn’t exist. I heard paper rustle as if the pages of a book were being hurriedly turned, although, as far as I could recall, there were no books or documents in this tunnel. I heard a faint whistle, a scraping sound, then the heavy breathing of some very big creature. Now I even heard ponderous footsteps! They were approaching me, slinking around me. Indeed, I thought I even felt something leaning over my shoulder. Whispering in my ear!
It was pure imagination, of course – my overwrought nerves were to blame. But my heartbeat steadily accelerated and I started to sweat profusely. What had the Uggly told me? It doesn’t matter what the Invisible Theatre shows onstage. What matters far more is what it does inside your head. For the first time, I truly grasped what she’d meant.
The Shadow King has returned – that sentence in the enduringly mysterious letter that had lured me into making this trip came back to me and began, fuelled by my morbid imagination, to take on a life of its own. I almost thought I could hear the Shadow King’s rustling laughter! It was at once terrifying and magnificent. What was happening here resembled what I had experienced at the Puppetocircus Maximus, but in a highly concentrated and far purer form: the Shadow King’s figure was taking shape in my mind’s eye. Nothing more was necessary. No scenery, no theatrical tricks, no additional puppets, no music, no scent organ; just my own creative imagination, which was being stimulated in a way I hadn’t experienced for a long
But the visions answered no questions, they only posed riddles and filled my brain unceasingly. A power that seemed at once familiar and strange to me, and which I’d thought for years I had lost like my own childhood, was whirling those images around in my brain to such an extent that I thought I was losing my mind, or at least my balance. Where did I know that feeling from? To complete my bewilderment, I now heard the voice of the Shadow King! I heard it as close and clearly and truly as if he were standing beside me in the flesh and whispering in my ear. ‘Yes, you can sense it, the Orm!’ he said in his dark, rustling voice. ‘These are the moments when ideas for whole novels rain down on you in seconds. It can rip the brain from your head and reinsert it the other way round! Can you sense it, the Orm?’
I knew those words, for he had said them to me once before, a long time ago. In my nonsensical fear, I had failed to understand that it was the Orm that was once more surging through me at last! It was the themes, figures and scenes of a whole book that were raining down on me! It was a novel that was taking shape in my head!
And then, quite suddenly, it was over. The fear, the sounds and images, the intoxication of the Orm – all left me in a flash and darkness returned. I noticed only now that I was bathed in sweat and breathing as heavily as if I were recovering from some great physical exertion.
It was some time before my heart slowed down a little. I listened. Had all these things really just happened? If so, why were the others so quiet? Had they undergone the same experience? Or something similar? Or nothing at all? I couldn’t imagine why the gabby dwarf was keeping his mouth shut for so long. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t even hear anyone breathing.
‘Hello?’ I called timidly.
‘Hello?’ I whispered again.
Enough of this! After all, I had everything I needed with me. Why else had I been carrying it around the whole time? I felt in my cloak and found a candle and a box of matches. Quickly, I struck a match and lit the candle. There! Then I held it up.
I wasn’t overly surprised to find myself alone. The Murkholmer, the dwarf, the Biblionaut, the bearded Druid – all had disappeared. I was more concerned to know how to behave in this situation without seeming ridiculous, for I felt quite sure that this was a test and that the others were watching me. At last I thought of Maestro Corodiak’s invitation.
Wait until you’re at the performance. Will you promise a blind person that? Corodiak had asked me. It’s very important, because it’ll greatly enhance the pleasure you derive from the Invisible Theatre!
I had kept my promise, but now the time had come to decipher his message – if there was one. I felt in my cloak again. And then, dear brothers and sisters in spirit, when I eventually found the card, I was suddenly overcome with the greatest unease. With a trembling paw I held the little card over the dancing candle flame until the pale yellow secret writing appeared. There was only one sentence on the invitation: It read:
This is where the story begins.
And here my translation ends. Only my translation, though, because Yarnspinner’s story in the Labyrinth of Dreaming Books naturally continues.
Much to my regret, I have been compelled to divide the novel into two books because of its length and complexity. This is mainly to do with the massive cuts I have once more had to make – an almost invariable task in the case of Yarnspinner’s often absurdly long-winded prose works. In the present volume this applied principally to the Notes on Puppetism, which I had to abridge by all of 400 pages, or the book would have been impossible to read with any pleasure.
In the second part, on which I am currently hard at work, the situation is even worse. This embodies a pseudoscientific text which Yarnspinner entitled The Secret Life of the Booklings and runs to 700 pages. Unreadable! Reducing this colossal Yarnspinnerish divagation to a tolerable length – without falsifying the book – is costing me considerably more time and effort than I had anticipated. At this point I should immodestly like to draw attention to my dual function as translator and illustrator, which entails an expenditure of effort that is often underestimated.
When I realised that the novel, were it to appear in a single volume, would not be ready by the contractual deadline, I had no choice but to warn the publisher. His reaction was unexpectedly fierce – indeed, positively unsympathetic – and he threatened me with legal proceedings. I had not only to admit that my assessment of the project had been at fault, but to come up with an alternative solution.
Hence my idea of making a virtue of necessity and turning one book into two. This would kill two birds with one stone: for one thing, I would have the requisite time in which to produce a conscientious translation of the second part (and illustrate it!); for another, readers would have the pleasure of reading a new Zamonia novel by Yarnspinner as soon as ever possible.
I am aware that my translation breaks off at a point at which my readers would, I believe, have liked to read on. But isn’t this better than if they were glad they had finished the book? Granted, they are temporarily left with a series of burning and unanswered questions. Can Yarnspinner once more escape unaided from the Labyrinth, or is he already in too far? What is the Invisible Theatre all about? Is our hero merely the victim of a harmless practical joke, or are quite different forces and intentions at work behind the scenes? Why did Corodiak give him that card? Is the blind Puppetist playing him false? Where has the Uggly got to and what is her role in the whole affair? Last but not least, what is the significance of Yarnspinner’s visions of Biblionauts, Booklings and unfamiliar scenes, persons and creatures during his visitation by the Orm? Were they a preview of what awaits him in the Labyrinth, or just a literary delirium?
If the answers to these questions are taking somewhat longer than I originally anticipated, I apologise. The blame is all mine, not Optimus Yarnspinner’s. I should therefore like at this point to go down on my knees, metaphorically speaking, and solicit a little patience. All I can do in the interim is to assure my gentle readers that their patience will be rewarded. For, as Yarnspinner has already promised, the true story really begins here. Everything hitherto has been just a prelude.
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Epub ISBN 9781448137916
Published by Harvill Secker 2012
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Copyright © Albrecht Knaus Verlag, Verlagsgruppe Random House GmbH 2011
English translation copyright © John Brownjohn 2012
Walter Moers has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work
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First published with the title Das Labyrinth der Träumenden Bücher in 2011 by Albrecht Knaus Verlag, Munich
First published in Great Britain in 2012 by
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