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The labyrinth of dreamin.., p.6
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       The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.6

           Walter Moers
‘“Quartz Book Deposit Released for Use as Building Material!”’

  he declaimed. ‘“After intensive research by the geological department of Bookholm University, the mayor’s office has decided that the rich deposit of quartz books found in a lateral branch of the Optimus Yarnspinner Shaft (as we reported) shall now be released for use as a building material free of charge. ‘The universal shortage of building materials occasioned by the Great Conflagration,’ Mayor HEMATITUS HEMO personally announced, ‘coupled with the scientific discovery that the process of petrification has deprived the fossilised books of all their ability to transmit information – and thus their status as antiquarian treasures – allowed of only this conclusion. The petrified books make excellent ashlars and roof tiles. They also look extremely handsome and are quite in keeping with the general character of Bookholmian architecture.’”’

  The gnome unearthed yet another galley.

  ‘“Quartz Books Used as Building Material Promote the City’s Architectural Development!”’

  he crowed. ‘“The official release of excavated quartz books for use as a building material has led to record building activity, particularly in districts surrounding the Optimus Yarnspinner Shaft. The local builders’ association has announced that the use of quartz books, especially for libraries—”’

  ‘All right!’ I broke in. ‘So the things are fireproof, I get it. Waterproof, too. That’s all I wanted to know.’

  My Live Historical Newspaper obediently fell silent and stowed his galleys away. Quartz books, well, well. So the catacombs were still full of undiscovered marvels and treasures. Any other city would have made a big song and dance out of this find, which was one of nature’s miracles, whereas here it was disposed of as a building material!

  We walked on in silence for a while, then turned down an alleyway and eventually reached a small square where the dwarf came to a sudden halt and solemnly announced: ‘We come now to older districts. Here Revolution Square. Here Naborik Bigosu burnt to death.’

  I looked around. The little square made an inconspicuous impression and contained no shops. Some of the buildings surrounding it were Buchting Brick Gothic, others in the rusty Ironvillean Heavy Industry style or in frivolous Florinthian Baroque – the usual picturesque architectural farrago, in other words, and interspersed with quartz-book brick, which I was beginning to like more and more.

  ‘Narobik Bigosu?’ I asked my guide. ‘Never heard of him. Was there a revolution in Bookholm? Really? What kind?’

  He rummaged among his papers and held a galley up to the light.

  ‘“From Prohibition to Revolution. A Historical Summary to Mark the Two-Hundredth Anniversary of the Bookholm Fire Revolution, by HEMLO DRUDEL.”’

  The gnome looked at me with his head on one side. ‘Read you?’

  ‘By all means,’ I replied. ‘Sounds interesting.’

  ‘“The prohibition of fire is one of the darkest chapters in recent Bookholmian history,”’ he began. ‘“In hindsight it seems almost inconceivable that a genuine attempt was made to ban the lighting and use of fire in Bookholm, yet it really forms a part of the city’s history. That it happened shortly after the last conflagration, and was attributable mainly to the ambition of certain reactionary Bookemists, may render it somewhat more comprehensible, but far from entirely so. Bookholm’s population was in a hopeless, aimless state of mind, the political situation anarchic, the city administration completely paralysed. Conditions were so chaotic that a group of fundamentalist Bookemists under the leadership of the charismatic antiquarian, astronomer and alchemistic charlatan NABORIK BIGOSU (an adherent and former adviser of PFISTOMEL SMYKE, incidentally) was able for the space of a year to establish an Ugglian regime in Bookholm that was not only medieval in character but devoid of any legal foundation.”’

  ‘This really happened?’ I exclaimed. ‘Here in Bookholm?’

  The dwarf just glanced at me and read on. ‘“In the course of this short-lived Bookemistic dictatorship it was strictly forbidden (only one of a series of equally bizarre prohibitions) to light any kind of fire within the city limits, whether on an open hearth or inside a stove or even in the form of a candle flame. Quite simply, the Bookemists proclaimed that this natural element was an addictive drug whose use led ultimately to destruction – a contention for which the recent conflagration naturally provided a convincing argument. The city’s inhabitants were still so traumatised by the event that they gratefully accepted anything that promised them protection from another inferno, so what could be more obvious than simply to ban fire itself?

  ‘“After the fire ban had come into force in the spring of that year, Bookholm swiftly reverted to a condition of almost Stone Age barbarism. Without light there was little protection from wild beasts at night, and it was, of course, impossible to boil water and kill bacteria in foodstuffs. Wolves and bats descended on the city in the darkness, rats and other vermin crawled out of the catacombs, and diseases of all kinds proliferated on an epidemic scale. The unsterile conditions had a disastrous effect on public health.”’

  The gnome turned over the sheet and read the rest of the article on the back.

  ‘“The totalitarian Bookemists suffered least of all,”’ he went on, ‘“because they had claimed the best and safest of the surviving houses for themselves and controlled the city’s food supplies, which they allegedly had to submit to alchemistic spells. Many a Bookholmer reported on the quiet that he had often noticed smoke rising from the Bookemists’ chimneys, seen candlelight in their windows and smelt burnt fat. When the winter of this darkest of all years finally arrived, the Bookholmers’ endurance was put to the hardest test in their history. Notwithstanding, some of them had to perish of cold before even the most obtuse of the city’s inhabitants grasped that civilisation without fire was a lethal misconception that had to be ended at once. And that was how the Fire Revolution of Bookholm, whose centennial we celebrate today, eventually came about.”’

  The dwarf drew a deep breath.

  ‘“If an individual lights a prohibited fire, he is easily identified and punished, but if everyone lights a fire at once, punishment is impossible. The basic idea underlying any revolution is that the oppressed must rebel collectively, not individually. That was what happened on that memorable winter’s night in Bookholm. Fire after fire was lit until the whole city was bathed in a flickering glow that was eerily reminiscent of the Great Conflagration. This time, however, the flames served to cure the city, not destroy it. In the end the townsfolk built a bonfire on which they cooked their first hot meals for a long time. For reasons of journalistic accuracy it should be noted that the fuel with which they stoked this bonfire included their temporary overlord, Naborik Bigosu. Having mentioned his name, however, let us strike it from our records for ever. That was the end of traditional Bookemism in Bookholm. We do not know where the surviving Bookemists disappeared to because the city’s inhabitants preserve a stubborn silence on the subject. It is, however, reported that many hot meals of fresh meat were cooked over campfires that night – and this although meat was in extremely short supply …”’

  The gnome ended his reading, folded up the article, stowed it away and looked at me expectantly like a dog waiting for another stick to be thrown.

  This was all entirely new to me, dear friends, but it naturally wasn’t the kind of story the city’s Tourist Board could have used as an advertisement for the warm-heartedness of its inhabitants. So we strolled on, my Live Historical Newspaper mutely rustling along at my heels and I myself lost in dark thoughts about the account I’d just heard. What other events in Bookholm had escaped me thanks to my mulish ignorance? Such gaps in my knowledge were thoroughly embarrassing. After all, I’d written a book about the city!

  Hearing a series of creaks and groans underfoot, I glanced down to find myself treading on planks again. It wasn’t until I looked along the street we were traversing that I saw its pavement had given way to the same sort of boardwalk I’d seen running ar
ound the mysterious Ugor Vochti Shaft.

  ‘What’s that?’ I asked.

  ‘Oh,’ said my guide, ‘that just the Optimus Yarnspinner Shaft. Over there by crossroads.’

  ‘Really?’ I replied, startled but wary. I couldn’t afford to let the cat out of the bag if I wanted to preserve my incognito. ‘The, er … Yarnspinner Shaft?’

  ‘You know who Optimus Yarnspinner?’ asked the dwarf.

  ‘Er … no,’ I lied.

  ‘Not important,’ the dwarf said dismissively. ‘Not any more. Silly ass now. Was good, now bad – no more Orm. You want me read lousy review of Yarnspinner novel?’ He rummaged in his archives.

  ‘Er, no thanks!’ I said quickly.

  ‘But is good lousy review! Is by Laptantidel Laptuda.’ Disappointedly, he put the galley away.

  ‘I’d sooner hear about these so-called shafts,’ I said in an effort to change the subject. We had now reached the crossroads. There, going down into the ground like the Ugor Vochti Shaft but considerably smaller, being only a few metres in diameter, was a timber-lined shaft equipped with flights of steps. There, too, the aperture was encircled by a balustraded boardwalk with numerous people walking around it, among them many tourists accompanied by Live Newspapers.

  ‘Shafts?’ asked the gnome. ‘You want me explain?’

  I nodded. ‘Yes, I want you explain.’

  ‘In that case,’ the gnome muttered, ‘I go further back.’

  He burrowed deep into his strips of newsprint. ‘Here! Very old article! Just after fire!’

  ‘“Mysterious Shafts Yield up Their Secrets!”’

  he cried dramatically. ‘“With preliminary clearing-up operations after the recent disastrous fire still in full swing, mysterious finds beneath the smoking rubble are giving rise to speculation. There is talk of shafts in the ground, some only a few feet across but others considerably larger and capacious enough to swallow a whole city block. According to eyewitness reports, these shafts lead deep into the Labyrinth but cannot yet be explored because they are either ablaze or at least smouldering dangerously. Experts assume that they are parts of the catacombs broken open and laid bare by the fire.”’

  He produced another galley.

  ‘“The First Shafts Explored. Captain of Bookholm Fire Brigade Missing!

  ‘“Now that the last fires have been extinguished, the mysterious shafts created by the conflagration (as we reported) can be examined more closely. Preliminary research has revealed that they probably resulted from a series of physical phenomena. When burning buildings on the surface of the city collapsed, some of the rubble pierced the ground and created new entrances to the Labyrinth. Oxygen and gases escaped from these entrances – or air and fire were sucked into them – with the result that tunnel fires of immense destructive power broke out and bored into the earth’s interior like fiery spears of enormous length. Once the flames had penetrated the Labyrinth they found plenty of fuel there. The chain-reaction fires that resulted ate deep into the catacombs for many miles.

  ‘“In the course of a preliminary exploration of one such shaft in Editorial Street, which is totally gutted, a young and audacious fire chief ventured into it for several feet and has (as we reported) disappeared without trace. Sundry attempts to bring him to the surface by lowering ropes and chains proved fruitless, nor did he respond to persistent calling and knocking. He is now assumed to be a tragic fatality.”’

  I signed to the dwarf to pause for a moment. I needed to digest this information first! So there were a whole series of these so-called ‘shafts’ in Bookholm. How many in all? And why was my shaft smaller than Ugor Vochti’s?

  ‘Please go on,’ I said.

  He went on:

  ‘“Locals have given the new phenomena a name. The ‘Bookholm Shafts’ are born!

  ‘“The burnt-out funnels that have created new entrances to the Labyrinth have at last acquired a name. Having quickly become known in the vernacular as ‘Bookholm Shafts’ (on account of their shaftlike conformation), this somewhat unscientific but popular neologism has been added to its geological vocabulary by Bookholm University and is thus in common parlance.”’

  ‘Oh, me got many articles on shafts … Many …’ muttered the gnome, foraging for more information. He held up another galley. ‘Me fast-forward!

  ‘“The ‘Bookholm Shafts’ are stabilised!”’

  he cried. ‘“The ‘Bookholm Shafts’, so often a current topic of conversation, have in recent days (as we reported) been more thoroughly explored and stabilised. Buttresses have been installed and concrete foundations poured, steps and ladders erected and the areas around the entrances secured with balustraded walk-in platforms. Entering these shafts no longer presents any real danger, though few people have so far been permitted access. The official long-term aim is to render the ‘Bookholm Shafts’ accessible to all.”’

  I raised my paw. ‘You mean you never even tried to fill these things in? You actually developed them for opening to the public?’ I was horrified.

  The dwarf merely glared at me. Interjections clearly displeased him.

  ‘“Bookholm Shafts Given Individual Names!”’

  he read on defiantly. ‘“The Bookholm Shafts have been officially declared urban thoroughfares – in administrative terms, streets. This, in turn, has confronted the local government authorities with the task of giving them names. They have resolved, as in the case of many of our streets, to name them after well-known authors. But which shaft will get which author’s name? This is still undecided and is bound to cause fierce controversy in the immediate future. We can hardly wait to hear which authors are assigned a Bookholm Shaft. The issue will certainly give rise to heated arguments.”’

  It certainly would! I really couldn’t see why the Optimus Yarnspinner Shaft was smaller than the Ugor Vochti Shaft. Vochti had written a few reasonable poems, but his entire prose output consisted of dusty old, deservedly forgotten novels. However, I kept these thoughts to myself so as not to confuse my guide. He was performing his task extremely well, though I could only shake my head at what had been done about those holes in the ground. To me they still seemed like gates of hell from which the apocalyptic hordes of darkness might burst forth and ravage the city, but the sole concern of Bookholm’s inhabitants seemed to have been whether to name one shaft after Orca de Wils or another after Balono de Zacher. That was pretty casual of them.

  ‘“Aleisha Wimpersleake Shaft Ceremonially Inaugurated!”’

  declaimed the dwarf as if he’d read my thoughts.

  ‘“The first Bookholm Shaft has at last been given its official name! It was no great surprise to learn that the chosen name was that of Aleisha Wimpersleake, the classic of classics, the bedrock of Zamonian literature. Nor was it any surprise that the largest of the new entrances to the Labyrinth has been named after him.”’

  In the old days most of the entrances to the catacombs had been anxiously walled up and access to them left to Bookhunters, adventurers, lunatics and suicides, whereas entering them today appeared to have become a kind of popular, happy-go-lucky sport. Here, too, I saw cheerful folk armed with torches and picnic baskets descending the steps into the Labyrinth as if they were going down into a wine cellar. They would once have prefaced such a descent by making their wills and embracing their nearest and dearest.

  ‘And have there never been any problems with these, er … holes over the years?’ I asked my gnome mistrustfully. ‘No unpleasant incidents?’

  ‘Oh, yes!’ he said. ‘Sometimes. Shafts always good for headlines. Here …’ He brought out another galley.

  ‘“Kackertratt Invasion from the Perla la Gadeon Shaft Controlled!

  ‘“Kackertratts, some the size of loaves of bread, have in recent months been discovered in bookshops around the Perla la Gadeon Shaft, often by horrified customers and to the chagrin of the proprietors. Experts assume the cause to be so-called ‘Wandering Fires’, or mobile subterranean hot spots where embers have continued to smoulder
since Bookholm’s Great Conflagration and periodically burst into flames once more. ‘Driven from their natural habitat, the Kackertratts reach the surface,’ explained catacomb entomologist PROFESSOR GOBORIAN CHITIN of Bookholm University. ‘They then instinctively seek out conditions like those in their subterranean home – and these are often found in bookshops.’

  ‘“The Kackertratt traps installed in bookshops tended to frighten their customers even more, however, as anyone can confirm who has seen a Kackertratt the length of his arm uttering shrill sawing sounds as it dies in agony. What was more, small domestic animals such as cats and dogs also wound up in those barbaric contraptions.

  ‘“Help was eventually provided by the Bookholm Fire Brigade, which, in cooperation with experienced pest controllers, sprayed the floor and walls with an effective insecticide. Since then there have apparently been no further complaints about huge insects – not, at least, outside the Toxic Zone.”’

  Bookholm Shafts! Wandering Fires! Toxic Zone! I was beginning to grasp the Live Historical Newspapers’ subtle business principle: one answer always led to the next question and one article to another, so we could have gone on like that to all eternity. Meantime, however, I had been overcome by travel lag. How long had I been on my feet? It was getting dark. Lights were coming on in houses, candles being placed in shop windows. Rather than listen to any more articles on the history of Bookholm, I felt like repairing to a tavern for a short rest.

  ‘You interested in Toxic Zone?’ enquired the gnome. ‘Me not got much in archives, but colleague over there! He specialist in Toxic Zone! He authority! All in Gothic!’

  Before I could do anything, he had beckoned his colleague over. In a trice, more Live Newspapers had converged from all directions and surrounded us. I felt like one of those idiots in Florinth’s celebrated Pigeon Square who scatter some birdseed and are then surprised to be almost eaten alive by the creatures.

  ‘Wandering Fires?’ cried one of them, rustling his paper attire. ‘Me got all about Wandering Fires! You need info? What date? What shaft?’

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