The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.5Walter Moers
I peered into the interior of the shop. On a shelf against the wall stood dozens of little cages, each containing an Animatome. They weren’t moving, though. They were waiting for a key to wind them up and bring them to temporary life like the example in the window. They were toys! Models! Joke articles for tourists who wanted to throw a scare into their friends back home.
I subsided. By the Orm, how embarrassing! First the fake Bookhunter and now this! I’d been taken in by tourist hokum twice in quick succession. That usually happened only to village idiots from the Graveyard Marshes, I felt sure! Life at Lindworm Castle had sissified and stupefied me considerably more than I’d thought.
I leant against a pillar. I needed to compose myself, that was all. I was tired after my trek, had been subjected to a massive culture shock, and my morbid imagination had made its usual contribution. Having faced up to my colossal fears, I couldn’t expect them to disperse like flatulence after a short walk. My return to Bookholm – how often had I been visited by that scenario in my dreams over the years! What nightmare scenes complete with a horrific cast of characters had my sleeping brain not conjured up! A city of blazing pitch and sulphur populated by a hundred incarnations of Pfistomel Smyke chasing me through its streets. Paper buildings printed with poems of my own that went up in smoke when touched by a ray of sunlight. Hordes of underworld insects crawling through the streets while the Darkman tore roofs off the houses and devoured their occupants. An inescapable labyrinth of streets with mobile walls like the passages in Shadowhall Castle and filled with bloodthirsty Bookhunters unmercifully pursuing me. I once dreamt that the city was an interminable, charred book graveyard in which I roamed in solitude as I had across the mouldering sea of paper in Unholm, the catacombs’ rubbish dump. In my dreams I waded through brittle, age-old paper, forever breaking through it and sinking in. Gigantic bookcases toppled over on me and buried me beneath them, bookworms devoured me alive. My restless brain devised new tortures and ways of dying every night. Why, actually? Why isn’t one master of one’s own brain? Why can’t one rest when asleep? Why is one so constantly tormented by absurd fears when reality tends to be peaceful and innocuous? Just imagine if real life were like our nightmares. Then teeth would suddenly sprout from our noses, we would come face to face with our dead grandmothers and the voice of our long-dead maths teacher would issue from our lips. Volcanic eruptions would be a daily occurrence and our homes would be deep in water inhabited by sharks made of bricks. That’s what sometimes happens in my dreams, anyway. But real life isn’t (thank goodness) as interesting and dangerous as that. Compared to our nightmares, it’s safe and uneventful. There were no sharks in our living room and no more Pfistomel Smyke in Bookholm. No Darkman either! All that real-life Bookholm had so far had to offer in the way of threats was a mechanical toy in a shop window, an actor dressed up as a Bookhunter, and an antipathetic dwarf. I needed to relax at last.
I left the Antique Arcades and headed deeper into the city. In order to do so, I had only to get my bearings from the location of the setting sun and head north.
Mental Picture No. 4 The Ugor Vochti Shaft
The only noteworthy feature of the side streets running off the Antique Arcades was the number of shops selling marionettes and other wooden puppets. They all had literary associations and represented authors or the characters in novels. This appeared to be a new line of business in Bookholm. I came eventually to a wide, busy street, which I remembered from my first stay and which looked almost unchanged. It used to be the centre for mass bookshops that sold books cheaper by the dozen and by weight – and it still was, to judge by the hoardings. Horse-drawn carts fully laden with books trundled along the street, and hawkers and extempore poets abounded. Although this district had repelled me in the old days, it now encouraged me to hope I would yet find something of the Bookholm of old, for at least it hadn’t been burnt to the ground. I continued to proceed in a northerly direction and was nearing a crossroads when I noticed that the pavement had given way to a boardwalk that creaked and groaned beneath my feet. This was an unusual sight in modern Bookholm. Combustible building materials like timber were only sparingly employed and looked positively old-fashioned when used for pavements. On reaching the crossroads I still saw pedestrians but no vehicles of any kind. In the middle of the intersection was a deep, balustraded pit with the boardwalk running round it. A huge pit in the middle of a crossroads? A surprising sight, my friends! I joined the spectators who were crowding up against the balustrade. Sure enough, there was a crater at least fifty or sixty feet across, lined with timber and so deep that the bottom was out of sight. There were even several flights of steps – many of timber, others of iron – leading down into it. People were climbing up and down them as if this were a thoroughly everyday activity, but to me it resembled one of the absurd scenes in my nightmares.
‘What on earth is that?’ I blurted out.
‘It’s the Ugor Vochti Shaft, you stupid clot,’ said a passer-by. ‘Use your eyes.’
I looked up and saw a sign inscribed in handsome calligraphic script. It read:
The Ugor Vochti Shaft
This was really something new, my friends! I was naturally familiar with Ugor Vochti’s name. He was a classical exponent of Zamonian literature and had written several genuinely good novels. But why ‘shaft’? I had never heard of any ‘shaft’ in Bookholm. I felt so stupid and provincial, I didn’t dare ask any more questions.
I looked down once more. A timber-lined shaft leading down into the ground? What, pray, could its purpose be? Where did it lead to? Nearly all the descending or ascending figures had lanterns, candles or torches with them. Right at the bottom I could make out tiny specks of light dancing around. What were those people doing down there? Was there something worth seeing? Leaning further over the balustrade, I was suddenly smitten by a gust of air coming straight from the bottom of the shaft. I recoiled as if struck by a fist, staggered backwards into a group of passers-by and apologised, then stood there, swaying, and pulled myself together. It was the smell of the catacombs that had so unexpectedly assailed me with all its might: microscopically fine book dust, the exhalations of algae and fungi, stagnant water and decay. That was how it smelt in the darkness beneath Bookholm! I felt dizzy, but my nausea luckily subsided as quickly as the smell evaporated.
A few pedestrians tittered at my behaviour and I earned the sort of pitying glances usually reserved for drunks. Heavens, I was once more behaving like a country bumpkin on his first visit to the big city! I debated with myself, but only for a moment. Some inner voice sternly forbade me to take another look down the hole. I could discover what it was in due course. Get out of here, I told myself. I took the next turning and strode swiftly along the boardwalk until I felt solid paving stones under my feet once more.
This is where our visit to the museum of Yarnspinnerish Mental Painting ends, dear friends, and another – probably more objective – form of Bookholmian reportage begins. I hope, however, that our brief tour has helped to make the state of acute bewilderment provoked in me by such a barrage of new impressions a little more comprehensible. One thing, at least, was clear: I couldn’t go on like this. I was running around like a headless chicken. What I badly needed was some reliable information, possibly a well-written tourist guide or something of the kind. Without more ado I went over to the nearest bookshop and peered through the window. Did they sell tourist guides? Street maps? Bookholm regionalia? A list of hotels wouldn’t come amiss either, because it was time I worked out where to stay for the next few days.
There was a loud rustling sound behind me and something plucked at my cloak. ‘Hello?’ said a piping voice. ‘Hellolioli? Care for a Live Historical Newspaper?’
1 Florinthian Canalism: an ultra-realistic style of painting traditionally practised by artists from the city of Florinth. Canalism’s favourite motifs are views of the Florinthian canals and the surrounding countryside and architecture in which, as one critic jocularly remarked, ‘one
All in Gothic
I TURNED TO look. Standing behind me in the dusty street and rudely tweaking my cloak was a dwarfish figure entirely encased in strips of newsprint – indeed, he looked like a newspaper on legs that had been run over and reduced to tatters.
Curious sight though this was, it took me aback for only a moment because I well remembered the so-called Live Newspapers from my first visit to Bookholm. They were smart, nimble little gnomes – journalistic errand boys, so to speak – who professionally disseminated the tittle-tattle of the cultural scene. I recalled that you could, for a small fee, tear the strips of newsprint off the gnomes and read them. They carried items such as:
Shock in the summerhouse! Mimolette van Bimmel swoons after completing her novel ‘The Yawned-Away Year’! Will she ever be able to write again?
Radiolarius Runk in punch-up with Vartok Smetterling at the ‘Golden Quill’! Rival authors accuse each other of plagiarism and alcohol abuse, then celebrate a liquid reconciliation!
Relief in the summerhouse! Mimolette van Bimmel able to write once more! Having recovered from her fainting fit after two days, she has embarked on her new bodice-ripper, ‘A Candle Underwater’!
Recalling this, I said to the gnome:
‘No thanks, gossip doesn’t interest me.’
He glared at me indignantly.
‘Me not gossip!’ he said in a trembling voice. ‘Me Live Historical Newspaper! Tested by Bookholm Tourist Association! All in Gothic!’
All in Gothic? I noticed only now that several tourists in this street were being followed around by similar little fellows attired in newsprint. The gnomes were reading aloud from their strips of paper.
‘Live Historical Newspaper?’ I demanded suspiciously. ‘What does that mean?’
‘Aah!’ The little creature’s eyes lit up and he abruptly dropped his affronted tone of voice. ‘New in city? All clear! You want me explain?’
‘Yes please,’ I said, nodding. ‘I want you explain.’
‘Live Historical Newspaper new service in Bookholm!’ he said eagerly. ‘We walk along together. You ask, I read answer from old newspaper. One street one pyra, six streets five pyras, twelve streets nine pyras. Not satisfied, money back.’ He handed me a sample strip torn off his paper costume. It was tomorrow’s weather forecast, duly printed in Gothic script. Rain was predicted in the afternoon.
‘We walk?’ asked the gnome, rustling his sheets encouragingly. I thought for a moment. Not a bad deal, actually. A smart idea for conveying information at an acceptable price. Or would it be too embarrassing to walk the streets with a gabbling dwarf in tow? Would I be branding myself an idiotic provincial tourist like the people who made spectacles of themselves in Florinth by being chauffeured around in bridal carriages or gondolas? On the other hand, I could see any number of tourists accompanied by Live Newspapers and no one looked twice at them. The alternative would be to wander around for days engaged in guesswork, studying expensive tourist guides and pumping local inhabitants.
‘All in Gothic!’ the dwarf said again, almost pleadingly. Silly as it may sound, my friends, that statement somehow clinched it for me! Gothic is to typography what half-timbering is to architecture, so to speak. Both convey a certain antiquity coupled with sound craftsmanship and timeless durability. Gothic inspires confidence. What the hell, I said to myself, it’s worth trying.
‘Very well,’ I said graciously. ‘I’ll try a Live Historical Newspaper for once. Do I pay now or later?’
‘Later, please,’ the dwarf cried happily. ‘Not compulsory, but tips accepted. If satisfied!’
‘I understand,’ I said. ‘Payment in arrears, but for that you expect a bit more, eh?’ Well, that wasn’t a bad business principle. If he meant to take me for a ride he’d have pocketed the money in advance. Good for modern Bookholm! Even the tricksters were more trustworthy than of old. Or smarter, at least.
‘Live Historical Newspapers steadily gaining popularity!’
the dwarf suddenly proclaimed, reading aloud from one of his strips of paper with a surprising absence of regional accent and grammatical errors. ‘“The new form of tourist guide is becoming more and more widespread in Bookholm. Its curious mixture of local and historical information and lively conversation is going down well with visitors, says UNKO VAN PAPPEL, the Tourist Board spokesman. For a small charge the visitor not only receives factual information purveyed by respectable journalists but is also guided safely through the city with no risk of being swindled. The number of Live Historical Newspapers has risen by seventy-five per cent within the space of a year.”’
All right, first a little self-promotion. That was permissible, but now I wanted to put my vertically challenged guide through his paces. Looking around for some notable feature in the vicinity, my eye lighted on a remarkable building distinguished not only by its size but by a truly noteworthy architectural peculiarity: one section of it projected high into the sky on metal stilts. I had already been struck that day by several buildings of similar construction.
‘What’s that?’ I asked, pointing to the curious edifice. ‘Can you explain?’ The dwarf rummaged self-importantly among his galleys. Then he found what he was looking for.
‘“Bookholm’s First Aerial Library Inaugurated!”’
He read out the headline very loudly, then lowered his voice a little. ‘“Barely a year after the Great Conflagration, the first house to be equipped with a so-called aerial library has been inaugurated in Urinoscopic Avenue.”’
Urinoscopic Avenue? I had just read that name on a street sign. It felt strange somehow, suddenly finding myself in the midst of a newspaper article.
The dwarf read on: ‘“Speaking at the ceremony, the proud architect, SULIBRAT UHU, stated that ‘aerial library’ is a misleading description. ‘That part of the building in which a valuable library is housed can, in the event of fire, be cranked into the air by means of a cable mechanism which, despite its complexity, even a child could operate with the aid of a simple flywheel. The precious volumes are thus so far from the ground that even the most disastrous conflagration cannot reach them. The stilts are made of fireproof steel.”’
The gnome held up another strip of paper.
‘“Aerial Libraries – Bookholm’s Latest Fashion!”’
he read. ‘“Houses on stilts are the latest architectural fad in our city – but only, of course, for people who can afford them, because those who acquire a crankable library must have deep pockets! This is why architect SULIBAR UHU, who specialises in this form of construction, has a clientele currently restricted to wealthy book collectors, successful authors and big-time publishers. It’s said that Uhu has just been commissioned to design aerial libraries for the popular cookbook author GLUTTONIUS GLOD (‘Fine Dining on Labyrinthine Algae’ – ‘Dishes that Glow in the Dark’) and his agent and publisher COUNT MAXIMILIAN PELTRADO. Whether these fireproof buildings actually enhance the appearance of our city is another matter. Neighbours complain that the owners of aerial libraries crank them into the air at every opportunity, even when there’s no risk of fire, and thereby obstruct their view – purely to show off.”’
‘Thanks, that’ll do,’ I called over my shoulder. ‘I get the picture.’
My Live Historical Newspaper stowed his article away as we continued to stroll along the street. I noticed that the dwarf seemed to be imitating the way I walked. He was following me like a little shadow – like a shrunken caricature of myself. If I walked slowly, he slowed down too. If I speeded up, so did he. Eagerly, I looked around for some other sights to question him about, because this business was beginning to amuse me. Being unable to discern any particularly noteworthy building at that moment, however, I asked my guide about something else that had aroused my curiosity.
‘Why have all these books been used as building materials? One building in five seems put together partly out of book
The gnome came to a halt, raised one hand and rummaged in his chaotic archives with the other. Then he brought out a piece of paper.
‘“Immense Deposit of Petrified Books Discovered in the Optimus Yarnspinner Shaft!”’
I was surprised for three reasons. First, because these books consisted of stone. Second, because there appeared to be another of these mysterious ‘shafts’ in Bookholm. And finally because I was naturally amazed that one of them bore my name.
‘What?’ I broke in. ‘You mean there’s a—’
The gnome stopped short. ‘Me read on?’ he asked. ‘Or another question?’
‘No, no,’ I said. He was right. First things first. ‘Read on by all means!’
He cleared his throat. ‘“City Hall announced yesterday that a copious deposit of fossilised books had been discovered during clearing-up operations in the Optimus Yarnspinner Shaft. Ancient tomes of immense age and hitherto unknown provenance, they are presumed to have been exposed to a rare petrological process that has also been observed in trees and whole forests.
‘“PROFESSOR FERRUGINUS SCREE, a geologist at Bookholm University, explained this phenomenon to your correspondent as follows: ‘When books are embedded in mud by subterranean floods, the natural process of decay can be considerably slowed by the removal of oxygen. If silicic acid seeps in through the groundwater, quartz deposits itself in the books’ cavities. This, when combined with exposure to great pressure, can result in the formation of quartz books resembling marble or similar minerals in texture and appearance.’
‘“The authorities are as yet unable to reveal what is to be done with this deposit of quartz books.”’
The dwarf produced another galley.
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