The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.8Walter Moers
‘The fire alarm! Bookholm’s Great Conflagration! The one started by the Shadow King. The last chapter in your book was the first in my new existence.’
‘What?’ I sat up again. Had I detected a reconciliatory note in his voice? I was feeling quite different, anyway. Different in a strange but agreeable manner. Was it the peppermint tea?’
‘So I was lying down there in my pit, wanting to die, d’you see?’ Ovidios went on. ‘It had rained heavily the day before the Great Conflagration and most of our holes in the ground were knee-deep in water in spite of the tarpaulins we’d suspended over them. I was floating more than lying. I could hear the tolling of the tocsin, the panic-stricken cries of the townsfolk and the crackle of the flames, but I couldn’t have cared less because I was done with life. I would burn to death, but so what?’
Ovidios lit a match and studied the flame.
‘And then came the heat. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced a gigantic wall of heat fuelled by millions of burning books, but I can tell you this: nothing in life prepares you for it! I dived below the surface of the muddy brew in which I was lying and it instantly began to simmer! I now know how someone must feel who’s being boiled to death.’
I leant across the table. He was a pretty good storyteller. ‘How?’ I asked in a low voice.
‘He wants to live, damn it!’ cried Ovidios. ‘He develops an instinct for survival more intense than he could ever have dreamt! Every fibre of his body feels more alive than ever before! And then …’
‘Yes?’ I said breathlessly.
‘Then he dies.’ Ovidios blew out the match.
I sat back again. I’d become so light-headed, I felt as if my head might at any moment detach itself from my body and float away like a balloon.
‘Mind you,’ he went on, ‘I said the water began to simmer, not boil. It could only have been a degree at most, a hair’s breadth on the thermometer, a single millilitre of mercury, that preserved me from what may well be the most terrible of all deaths! It became so hot, I thought my teeth would melt. Although I’d shut my eyes, the glare was so dazzling I could see the veins in my eyelids throb in time to my racing heartbeat. And I heard an ear-splitting roar, even underwater! In your book you used a very apt metaphor for the Great Conflagration: The Dreaming Books had awakened! Yes, that’s just how it was. It sounded as if a thousandfold herd of frenzied beasts were thundering overhead, but it was the merciless Fire Moloch devouring the oxygen above me!’
Ovidios drummed on the table with both claw-tipped paws to imitate the hoofbeats of a thousand animals, and one or two heads in the Fumoir turned in our direction. The two little gnomes were undisguisedly staring at us with glassy, red-rimmed eyes.
‘And then, quite suddenly, it was over,’ Ovidios went on in a low voice. ‘From one moment to the next. I couldn’t have held my breath a second longer. I rose from the simmering brew, steaming in the cooling aftermath of the wall of fire. I groaned and yelled and flailed my arms like a lunatic who has split his straitjacket. Aaarh! I was incapable of any form of civilised linguistic utterance. I had survived a conflagration of apocalyptic dimensions. Had been nearly boiled alive. Had almost died and resurrected myself. Not a bad outcome for an otherwise uneventful afternoon, my friend! But that was nothing. My real experience of that day was still to come.’
Ovidios sat back and grinned. His eyes had begun to sparkle and a brief sidelong glance told me that the gnomes at the next table were pricking up their long ears in an attempt to overhear the story.
‘I wiped the mud from my eyes and looked up. Framed by the elongated, rectangular mouth of my grave I saw the sky. It was dark, though whether with smoke or the advent of night I didn’t know, nor could I tell whether what twinkled in it were stars or the sparks from burning books. I only knew that I had never seen a sky like it. I was looking at the Alphabet of the Stars, a firmament filled with sparkling symbols, an illegible but wonderful luminous script as old as the universe itself.’
‘You saw it too?’ I said. ‘The Alphabet?’
Ovidios stared at me for a while. Had he lost his thread? Was he even aware of my presence? At length he went on.
‘And then I was struck by an invisible thunderbolt – a beam, a blow, a billow, an electric shock, whatever – coming straight from the cosmos. It nearly knocked me back into the mud – it cleft me down the middle like an axe splitting a block of wood. It didn’t hurt or frighten me. I almost laughed. It was as if I had been charged with an energy I’d never known before, a creative power that nearly burst my brain. Were flames coming from my nostrils? I didn’t know. I knew only this: that suddenly there were two of me standing down there in the pit. The old Ovidios in his tattered rags and the new Ovidios you see before you. I had only to decide which one I wanted to be from then on.’
Ovidios grinned and flung out his arms. His new clothes really suited him. He lowered his voice.
‘I know this sounds like the documentary record of a lunatic describing the onset of his dementia. I don’t tell this story to everyone, but I’m sure you’ve experienced something similar. For at that moment I was overcome by the Orm.’
His eyes filled more and more with tears until they were streaming down his face. Either he didn’t appear to notice or he didn’t care. Stretching out his arm, he pointed at the fog of tobacco smoke above my head.
‘I could see right into the future! I could see what would happen if I seized this moment and exploited it. I could begin all over again and change everything for the better, because symbols – sparkling characters from the Alphabet of the Stars – were trickling through my brain. Although disorganised and hard to interpret at first, they quickly sorted themselves out into groups, and here and there made glorious sense. Something unique and imperishable was taking shape in my head, an ingenious structure of words and sentences that not only materialised there like a strangely beautiful, extraterrestrial creature but spoke to me in immaculate verse! It was a poem. Quite unconnected with my own thought processes, it consisted of ideas from space: a gift from the stars!’
Ovidios looked at me with sudden severity. He leant over and gripped my arm so hard that it hurt.
‘Believe me, Optimus, I’m not mad, nor am I one of those lazy-minded esotericists who believe in inexplicable phenomena, tea leaves, or the voice of their dead grandmother. I’m guided by a strictly scientific view of the world. I put all my faith in the measurability of Zamonian natural phenomena. I’m not a spiritualist. I believe in nothing that can only be grasped with the aid of blind faith. For that thing, the power we call the Orm, is more concrete than anything else in existence. It’s real, even though we can’t see it and few have experienced it.’
He let go of my arm and sat back. Then he adjusted his clothing and seemed to grow calmer.
‘But what am I saying?’ he added with a laugh. ‘No writer has ever been more thoroughly suffused with the Orm than you yourself!’
I slumped in my chair again. Fortunately, Ovidios went on at once.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘that was the cosmic prelude, the overture. Now comes the real story. I slowly recovered my senses. I now knew that if I succeeded in capturing and organising these fleeting symbols in my brain – if I wrote them down in the correct order – they would yield an Orm-inspired work. It was as simple as that. The problem was, I was still standing at the bottom of a muddy pit, soaked to the skin, and a catastrophic fire was raging outside. Night had fallen, and people were screaming and sobbing. Hardly ideal conditions in which to commit an important literary work to paper, were they?’
The gnome at the next table was now leaning so obtrusively in our direction, I feared he would fall off his chair at any moment. Ovidios produced a notebook and flourished it under my nose.
‘Paper!’ he cried. ‘I badly needed some paper. I found a pencil in my rags, but the paper in my pockets was completely sodden. I had to get out of that accursed pit, but the rain of recent days had r
Ovidios slammed his notebook down on the table and at that moment one of the gnomes really did fall off his chair. His companion rocked with unsympathetic laughter as he promptly scrambled to his feet.
‘Then, all at once, a rope was lowered into the pit,’ Ovidios went on, unmoved. ‘I grasped it at once with both paws and was hauled aloft. It was my friends and companions in misfortune, my neighbours in the Graveyard of Forgotten Writers! Submerged in their muddy holes, they had survived the conflagration like me. We fell into each other’s arms and exchanged mutual congratulations. But I hastened on. I had to find some paper! The poem, the great, immortal epic on the burning of Bookholm, was now clearly legible before my inner eye in twenty-four immaculate strophes suffused with the purest Orm! I had only to write them down. Paper, paper! I roamed the smoking ruins. Everything was burning and smouldering, and the ground was as hot as a hotplate. Having found paper in my pockets that was too wet to write on, all I found in the vicinity of the graveyard was some so charred or desiccated that it crumbled away between my claws. And the verses in my head were already beginning to fade. I was on the verge of despair. Of giving up. Of sinking to the ground and letting the poem die in my brain, unheard by anyone but me. But then something occurred to me. Do you like choral music?’
‘Eh?’ I said, puzzled by the sudden question. ‘Er, yes. No. Well, I don’t know. Er, choral music?’
‘It isn’t to everyone’s taste, I know,’ said Ovidios. ‘But I love chorales. And that was the solution to my predicament. I needed a choir.’
The two gnomes stared at him uncomprehendingly and I too felt that he’d somehow lost the thread.
‘I hurried back to my pit,’ Ovidios continued resolutely, ‘and gathered my fellow sufferers around me – all the residents of the Graveyard of Forgotten Writers. And then I delivered a speech.
‘“Listen!” I cried. “I’ve just been pervaded by the Orm!”
‘“Oh, sure,” someone said mockingly.
‘“Happens to me all the time!” cried another.
‘Laughter and giggles on all sides, then silence fell. Raising both arms, I began again from the beginning: “I know it sounds rather odd, my friends, especially under present circumstances. Believe it or not, though, the fact is that my inner eye has conceived a revolutionary epic poem which, unless it is recorded in some way, will soon be lost for ever because there’s no paper anywhere and it’s already fading from my memory. It came to me when the fire engulfed us and I’m convinced that it’s an Orm-given gift. I also know, however, that many of you don’t even believe in the Orm, so why should you believe such a fantastic story? For that reason, I simply want to ask you all for an act of friendship, whether or not you think I’ve lost my wits. Please just do as I say. It isn’t very difficult.’
‘“All right,” said someone. “What are we to do?”
‘“It’s quite simple. I shall now recite the poem aloud, strophe by strophe, and I’d like you to memorise one each. I shall station myself in front of you and very slowly declaim each strophe loud and clear. Please retain it in your memory until you get an opportunity to write it down. That’s all.”’
Ovidios’s gaze became transfigured as he recalled these events. He was positively looking through me now.
‘And that was the origin of The Miracle of the Graveyard of Forgotten Writers, as it later became known in Bookholm. It was anything but a miracle, of course; it was simply a form of choir practice, but of that we were just as unaware as we were of the fact that this was the moment when all our lives took a turn for the better. It would never have occurred to us in our current state, soaked to the skin and plastered with mud from head to toe.’
I sat back feeling thoroughly relieved, my friends. His story also seemed to be taking a favourable turn and I was feeling in a better, almost silly mood. I kept having to stifle an urge to laugh aloud, even though there was no real reason for it. The two gnomes lit another pipe.
‘The laughter and the stupid remarks died away after the first few lines I recited,’ Ovidios went on. ‘I saw looks of amazement being exchanged, for although we were all failed writers, we did know exceptionally fine literature when we heard it. Even those of us who didn’t really believe in the Orm grasped that they were sharing in something quite out of the ordinary. Tears started flowing after only a few strophes and on many faces I saw sheer rapture, undisguised envy or pure delight as their owners memorised the lines. Their eyes glowed with the fire of the Orm and it wouldn’t have surprised me to see sparks flying between us. I went from poet to poet, and when I’d finally recited every strophe I heard some of my listeners sob and saw many sink to the ground because their legs had given way. Others laughed aloud, but for joy. My poem had poured what all of us had experienced during the inferno into timeless verse. It had come from the heart. At once a paean to life and a hymn to death and resurrection, it left no one unmoved. I sank to the ground in exhaustion, like a balloon from which all the air has escaped. And that is just what I felt like: the poem had left me, all of it with the exception of one strophe, which I memorised myself. It now lived on in the collective memory of us all.’
Ovidios smiled. ‘Do you know what they christened us in Bookholm later on?’ he asked. ‘The Forgotten Writers’ Choir. We were a more united community than before, except that what united us was the will to live, not thoughts of suicide. We appeared in the streets of Bookholm and recited the poem together. Just like that, without special intent and exactly in the way we’d practised it, one strophe apiece. We had, of course, written it down in the interim, but it gave us the greatest satisfaction to recite it from memory like actors upon a stage. We performed in markets, at weddings and topping-out ceremonies, and we attracted steadily growing audiences. The choir became locally celebrated, an institution. By expressing what all of us had been through, my ballad brought consolation, so it helped the Bookholmers to rediscover their instinct for survival. Dramatic though this may sound, it’s true. It was the best thing I’d ever written. I didn’t know then that it would remain so, but I’ve come to terms with that.’
‘I don’t want to exaggerate the choir’s importance to the rebuilding of Bookholm, but it would be false modesty to deny it. We were a living symbol that a vibrant culture and a strong community can survive the worst of crises and catastrophes.’
‘Still,’ I ventured to put in, ‘that doesn’t explain why you’ve become so prosperous.’ I indicated his jewellery.
‘Not so fast! The story isn’t over yet. Now comes the commercial part.’ Ovidios grinned self-confidently. ‘Well, after a while the Forgotten Writers went their separate ways. A few of them married and moved away. A few died in the nature of things. When the first of us announced that he was leaving Bookholm, we resolved never to recite the poem in public again. That was to remain the privilege of our old closed community. I hadn’t until then thought of publishing it in book form, believe me, but when word got around that the Forgotten Writers would never perform again, a publisher convinced me that this piece of literature must definitely be preserved for posterity in print. Well, how could I quarrel with that? We made a contract under which all surviving members of the choir would share equally in the proceeds. We were reckoning on sales of a few hundred at most – I mean, who was going to buy a slim volume containing only one poem? That’s that, I thought. We had a good time and we’re alive, what more could anyone want? But then things really took off.’ Ovidios grinned again.
‘The book became a bestseller. Only within the narrow confines of Bookholm, admittedly, but with a vengeance! To begin with it was bought by every Bookholmer who had survived the fire. Then it became required reading in schools. Tourists started to take an interest in t
I subsided in relief, tacitly congratulating myself on having joined his table. A long-standing weight had lifted from my shoulders.
Ovidios reached into his cloak, brought out a small booklet and slid it across the table to me.
‘A signed edition,’ he said. ‘I happened to have one on me.’ He grinned. ‘Perhaps you’ll run your eye over it some time.’
I picked up the little book.
‘Well,’ said Ovidios, who had clearly got the bit between his teeth and was filling another pipe. ‘That was only my little, personal story – just a footnote in the city’s development after the fire. Which, in turn, is a big story on its own. Would you care to hear a bit of it? Bookholmology for advanced students?’
‘I insist,’ I heard myself say. My voice seemed to come from a long way off, but I didn’t care. I wanted to hear more, much more! The two little gnomes beside us had dozed off with their heads on the table and were laughing softly in their sleep.
THE FUMOIR HAD filled up with smokers in the meantime. They were now sitting crowded together at the tables and some had even sat down at ours. Here and there wine bottles were circulating as well as pipes. As far as I could tell in the blue haze, most of the newcomers were a motley assortment of Bookholm residents. I could deduce this from their clothing, for many were in professional dress: the book dealers in their famous brown linen habits with patch pockets for holding books (and the knotted cords round their waists with which they measured a volume’s dimensions); the printers with their washable leather aprons and inky fingers; the editors with reading glasses round their necks; the blasé-looking Norselander notaries in their sleeve protectors; the Florinthian chefs in their stupid hats (why did you need a hat to cook in?); and, of course, the young poets whose attire conveyed their militant individualism: jaunty headgear and scarfs carelessly wound round their necks, shoulder bags containing notebooks and the inevitable volume of their own poems peeping casually out of a pocket.
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