The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.4Walter Moers
I wanted to see everything at once, as if the city might once more go up in flames or sink into the ground at any moment. Walk, pause, look – that had always been my proven motto when travelling and in Bookholm it applied in the fullest measure. Wherever I walked or paused, there was something large or small to marvel at.
I will now, dear brothers and sisters, let you into a secret and reveal a literary technique which I call noting without notes. It could also, to put it rather more academically, be termed Yarnspinnerish mental painting. It works like this: whenever, while travelling, I get into situations in which incidents or sights threaten to overwhelm me and the normal author would automatically fish out his notebook in order to record as much about them as possible in writing, I quite deliberately refrain from making any notes or sketches. This compels my memory to perform an astonishing feat: my brain paints one mental painting after another. I discovered that I possessed this ability a considerable time ago, namely, when I began to write The City of Dreaming Books. I had no notes at my disposal because the dramatic events in Bookholm and the catacombs had given me absolutely no opportunity to make any. When I started to write, however, my mind’s eye conjured up images and scenes so vivid and detailed that I might have been experiencing them all over again.
Anyone who has seen a panoramic painting – a view of a famous city or landscape reproduced with the utmost possible accuracy by a talented artist – will have some inkling of what I mean. One sector of my brain can be likened to a miniature museum in which products of Yarnspinnerish mental painting are displayed. They are details of landscapes and cityscapes so accurate and realistic that they are in no way inferior to the masterpieces of Florinthian Canalism.1 Indeed, they even surpass them in one vital respect: moving objects do not remain still as they would in a painting on canvas, but are just as much in motion as the scenes that etched themselves into my retinas. I see passers-by walking past, light dancing on water, wind stirring the leaves in the trees, smoke rising, flags fluttering … How can this be? I don’t know, dear friends. I can only construe it as a side effect of the Orm. It’s a gift that I myself find rather uncanny, for sometimes, when my mind’s eye contemplates the products of Yarnspinnerish mental painting, I feel as if I’m seeing only the surface of a gift beneath which much more may lurk – indeed, even a dark secret of some kind. It’s as if I’m looking into a magic mirror that reflects a perfect likeness of my world in order to disguise the fact that a mysterious world of its own lies hidden behind it.
But now, dear friends, I shall conduct you around this imaginary museum and give you an exclusive guided tour through some of the mental pictures of Bookholm that my feverish brain produced on my first reconnaissance, for I could not, with the best will in the world, make any notes.
Mental Picture No. 1 The Borderlanes
The first curiosity that struck me in the new Bookholm was its Gigabooks. These monstrous replicas of ancient tomes were erected a century ago at every entrance to the city – one of the architectural luxuries it could afford thanks to its new-found wealth, I later discovered. Designed and painted by various artists, these colossal books in stone or metal leant against the walls of buildings or lay on the pavement, immediately suggesting to visitors that they were entering a city in which special importance was attached to the printed word and bound paper.
Ostentatious and pretentious though this may seem to some, I took to it at once because the books were very well made and conveyed a magical impression. Resembling the lost property of well-read but absent-minded giants, they attracted the attention of children in particular. One passed through them into a fairy-tale realm where different orders of magnitude prevailed – even different laws of nature, perhaps – and where things were possible of which one could only dream. What could be wrong with a city that credited the book with such importance?
The Borderlanes were the city’s outer ring, a thin network of narrow alleyways that enclosed Bookholm like a porous wall. This was where one gained an initial impression of the city’s architectural diversity. There was nothing of importance to be seen in other respects, however, because most of the buildings were occupied by civil servants, who also had their offices there. The Borderlanes contained no taverns or antiquarian bookshops; you went there only when you needed a new rubber stamp, a publican’s licence, or a notary.
Mental Picture No. 2 The Outer Ring Road
If one compared the city to a book, the Borderlanes were the jacket and the Outer Ring Road, which encircled modern Bookholm inside the Borderlanes like an additional belt, could be the hard cover. Seeming at first sight to represent all that the city centre had to offer, it held the whole thing together. But here, too, the old saying holds true: Never judge a book by its cover!
Everything in the Outer Ring Road was new. The fire had raged here too, I discovered later, but all the streets had been levelled and rebuilt from scratch. The buildings, the shops and hotels, the smooth roadway and the well-swept pavements with their splendid mosaics depicting scenes from Zamonian literature – all looked as if they had been constructed yesterday and freshly painted today: neat, clean and displaying no trace of Bookholm’s catastrophic past. This street was designed for the visitor desirous of a superficial look at the city, the merchant needing a bed for the night, or the bird of passage in search of a simple meal in an inexpensive restaurant.
The ring road housed some nice but unpretentious bookshops, very few of which sold antiquarian items, or only those that had been done up to lend them a semblance of age. It pulsated with visitors on day trips to Bookholm, tourists travelling in groups, and hawkers specialising in quick sales. The hotels and restaurants bore names like The Silver Pen, The Empty Inkwell, The Hexameter Rooms, or The Old Printing House. Most of the shops between them sold cheap souvenirs such as snowstorm paperweights containing little old Bookemistic buildings or modern books such as could be bought in any sizeable Zamonian town. You were well catered for here if you wanted a warm rug for the journey or some saddlery, a coffee or a chemist. Anyone in search of an interesting antiquarian book would have looked in vain.
The ring road was devoid of charm and bore no resemblance to the Bookholm of old, but I cannot say that my expectations were really dashed. It was practical. I quickly found a cheap hotel – The Gilt Edge, ‘breakfast included’ – in which to spend my first night, dumped my modest baggage, had a wash and hurried on. I would look around for better accommodation next day, but it was quite good enough for one night. And so, having deposited my belongings and freshened up a bit, I plunged back into the urban bustle. My fatigue and thirst I assuaged with some coffee and water from a stall, my hunger with a wholemeal biscuit and ascetic self-restraint. I was anxious to lose weight, after all.
Mental Picture No. 3 The Antique Arcades
I then turned off the ring road in the hope of soon entering the true, authentic Bookholm. I was rather disorientated, not having a street map or any other form of guide, so my route chanced to take me down some narrow alleyways and into a large square known, according to a street sign, as the Antique Arcades. I saw at once that it was an improvement on the Outer Ring Road. Anyone who went there was somewhat more interested in the Bookholm of old (and in books) than a hurried commercial traveller. In the centre was a marketplace with numerous stalls and booths surrounded by an oval arcade containing one shop after another. The size of a small city district, the Antique Arcades were teeming with busy people. The market sold food, basketware and pottery for the most part, but dotted here and there were tables bearing antiquarian books, ancient parchments, and tubs containing carved quill pens, ex-libris and coloured inks. There were also stallholders selling carved glove puppets and marionettes with the heads of famous authors (mine wasn’t among them, fortunately!). One could buy edible insects such as the Bookholm crickets very popular with dwarfs, which were caught on the grassy plain outside the city and offered for sale live in wickerwork baskets. The desperate chirping that issued from their cages was
The maddening smells of food soon drove me out of the marketplace and into the arcades, where I scanned the little shop windows. There in the medieval vaulted gallery, which had many-branched chandeliers suspended from its ceiling, one could stroll dry-shod even in bad weather. There were a number of serious antiquarian books for sale. I spotted a misprinted edition of Yahudir Odenvather’s Out Alone, the immortal fictional biography The Salt Giant by Pharlik Milpiprotz, the self-illustrated, hallucinatory poems of Wilma Kleballi, Wolberg Void’s polyhistorical world history, long out of print, and right beside it a signed complete edition of Frautebus Galtev’s novels – true rarities and all in immaculate condition. Here too there were shops selling carved marionettes, though of superior craftsmanship and price, also collectibles connected with printing in the most diverse ways: old spectacles and magnifying glasses, prints cut out of books and framed, bookmarks, some gilt and others of gossamer-thin ivory, expensive Bookemical preparations for treating antique leather bindings, ornately carved bookends, discarded type of boxwood and lead, ancient compositor’s trays (allegedly of Nurnwood), and even complete ancient printing presses made of cast iron and brass. Anyone entering one of these shops needed to bring a somewhat fatter purse with him. But let us be honest: all these pretty things could just as well have been found in the antique shops of other big cities such as Grailsund or Florinth; there was truly no reason to travel to Bookholm for them. I was overcome by a vague feeling of disappointment. Was this the price of Bookholm’s new popularity: that it would sooner or later become a city like any other, with miles of strollers’ boulevards identical to others elsewhere? Was that all the progress it had made in two centuries? Covered walkways for up-market souvenir shops? Where was the old, wild, adventurous Bookholm? Preoccupied with such thoughts, I allowed myself to be swept along until I paused in front of a shop window. I couldn’t immediately recognise the items displayed in it. Then I realised that they were books.
Are there really books unrecognisable as such at first sight? Clearly so in this shop, which actually specialised in them. I saw objects reminiscent at first glance of all manner of things: pyramids, sausages or accordions, but not books, my friends! Then I noticed that all these curious objects were composed of leather and paper, had printed pages, and were provided with titles and bookmarks. They had to be books! I even made out booklets tiny enough to fit into little glass bottles or matchboxes.
‘Looking for anything in particular?’ demanded a thin, bearded Druid in a linen smock, who was standing in the shop entrance and eyeing me superciliously.
‘Are all of these books?’ I asked stupidly, at once regretting it.
‘Certainly not!’ snorted the gaunt individual. ‘Ordinary books are on sale everywhere. These are Unbooks!’ He pointed to the shop sign above him.
A wise Lindworm would have terminated the conversation at that point, but I couldn’t restrain myself. ‘You sell books in sausage form?’ I asked.
‘Sausage books from a Melusinian versery in the Impic Alps,’ the beanpole said haughtily. ‘They’re illuminated volumes of a very special kind. Air-dried for five years by Dumbdruids, they contain aphorisms by Deograzia Dottentrott. You can also buy them by the slice.’
‘No thanks,’ I said hurriedly. I wanted to beat a retreat, but it was already too late, the Druid had grabbed my cloak and was holding me fast. ‘Do come in! I’ll show you the pyramidal novels by Humidius von Quackenschlamm. They’re all set in a triangular dimension.’ His eyes glittered with desperation.
I suddenly got the picture: this bookseller was the victim of an imbecilic business plan, whether his own or someone else’s. He was a captive in this shop filled with idiotic, unsaleable Unbooks and had only been waiting, like a starving spider in its web, for someone of my kind to come along.
‘The traditional book format is doomed,’ he hissed at me and I saw beads of sweat collecting on his brow. ‘We deal in Unbooks of avantgarde design, circular books that can be opened like a fan! I hold the exclusive dealership for Ligoretto Loyola’s accordion books!’
I felt genuinely sorry for him. He might as well have tried to sell square wheels or screws without threads and wickless candles. Why invent something completely new? These were by far the most ludicrous aberrations of the book trade I had ever seen. They would moulder away for ever in the Antique Arcades, he realised that only too well.
‘The print in our Minibooks is guaranteed so small as to be illegible!’ he croaked after me when I freed myself with a jerk. ‘Even the editions are tiny!’
‘No thanks, really not!’ I called back and plunged into the stream of passers-by. I felt relieved as I was borne along, but not only because I’d escaped that pathetic dealer in crackpot editions. The thing was, I suddenly felt I had truly reached Bookholm at last. An Unbookshop for Unbooks? Nowhere else in the world could such an establishment exist! This was the Bookholm of old – or at least a pale reflection of it. All I needed to do was go on looking and I would find the real thing. I was still in the city’s outer districts, after all. My hopes revived.
I strolled on, shoved and jostled by the passers-by. Thronging the Antique Arcades were hordes of visitors, groups on package tours, classes on school outings, and parents with children who seldom ventured into the more expensive shops and merely clamped their inquisitive noses to the windows. Meanwhile, the proprietors sat inside in solitary state, gazing wearily out like mournful fish in an aquarium. This was Bookholm for beginners, I told myself. I was already looking for a way out of this tourist trap when my attention was suddenly captured – and how! – by one of the figures in the crowd surging towards me. It was wearing a strange suit of armour composed of bones and a death’s-head mask adorned with semi-precious stones. There was a huge gold axe hanging from its belt and a crossbow on its shoulder. Letting the crowd flow past me, I stared at it. Time seemed to stand still.
Surely it was … a Bookhunter! Yes! No! Yes! Impossible! My legs turned to jelly. There weren’t any Bookhunters left in Bookholm, they were all dead! Bookhunting had been legally prohibited in the city since the Great Conflagration. And yet … That martial attire, those weapons, that frightful mask – only a Bookhunter went around like that. And the strangest thing was, he inspired no form of terror, or even respect, in anyone but me. Nobody was avoiding him and anyone who watched him go by did so with a smile or a positively benevolent expression. Indeed, even children seemed to seek his company. I saw one little girl go up to the mail-clad figure and ask him something, whereupon he paused and gently stroked her head while her parents laughed happily. Then he strode on and disappeared into the crowd. Was this a bad dream?
Jostled by someone, I lurched onwards. And then at last I grasped the truth. It was an actor! A street artist! A performer dressed up as Bookhunter! Possibly even employed by the municipal authorities to entertain visitors. Of course, that was the only possible explanation! I heaved a sigh of relief. My goodness! My knees were still trembling, my paws fluttering like dragonfly wings and my heart was still in my mouth. I extricated myself from the stream of pedestrians and paused in front of a shop window to calm down a little.
When I examined the goods on display to distract myself, I involuntarily shrank back as if I’d seen an aggressive scorpion or a huge, fat spider about to pounce. The truth was far more alarming, however, for in the middle of the display sat an Animatome, a live book! A creature of the catacombs! What was more, it was one of the most dangerous kind. It had just captured a rat and was pleasurably engaged in biting off its head!
I had instinctively retreated several paces from
There was no further doubt: it was an Animatome, and it had caught a rat with its bookmarks and strangled it. Now it was proceeding to devour its prey; a pool of blood was clearly visible beneath the horrific scene.
Although the victim’s head had already been bitten off, the rat’s tail was still lashing around in a violent reflex. I noticed only now that the window dressing was a fairly accurate reproduction of conditions in certain areas of the catacombs, with a mossy granite floor on which ancient volumes and scattered parchments were mouldering away and bookworms crawling around. On closer inspection, however, didn’t the movements of the Animatome and the rat look somehow unnatural? There, the rat’s tail was swishing exactly as it had a moment ago. And the way the book swayed around on its spindly legs – wasn’t it always the same? Like … yes, like a mechanical toy? It was then that I read one of the signs stuck to the shop window:
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