The labyrinth of dreamin.., p.9
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       The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.9

           Walter Moers
 

  The fumes and the babble of voices steadily intensified. Although we were being smoked like dried cod, I found the place more and more congenial. I felt fine without knowing why. I’d had no idea that the smoke of so many kinds of dried stimulants could be drawn into one’s lungs. Plain tobacco was probably the least of it! Herbs, coloured powders, dried fruit, dried roots – even colourful petals or ground-up nuts were being stuffed into pipes or rolled in cigarette paper. I caught the soapy perfume of lilac, the resinous aroma of hemp, the heavy scent of nutmeg, and mingled with them the pungent fumes of phogars. Many pipes emitted tall, thin flames as soon as they were lit. A Froglet was smoking a pipe with three bowls from which threads of different-coloured smoke were rising. Only hardened inhalers with lungs of cast iron could take that for any length of time. It struck me then that I still hadn’t produced my own pipe, I’d been too fascinated by Ovidios’s account of the Orm, so I felt in my pockets. Unlike me, the loquacious Lindworm had refilled and lit his own smoking utensil, and was resuming his narrative. If I wanted to smoke in here, I had only to breathe in and out.

  ‘From one day to the next, many Bookholmers were no better off than us residents of the Graveyard of Forgotten Books,’ he began, puffing away. ‘In actual fact, we were the lucky ones. Not having owned anything, we’d lost nothing. Half the city’s inhabitants were homeless. People were living in book crates and charred ruins, regardless of whether they wore gold chains and rings set with precious stones. Anyone who had survived was a winner.

  ‘Everything had gone back to zero. In the old days people would simply have ignored another’s plight, but now they helped each other. Acts of friendship were the universally valid currency of the time. One person might design a house, another lay the foundations, yet another mix cement, and five former neighbours would collaborate in raising the roof. Bookholm arose from the ashes, restored from the bottom up, and grew at breathtaking speed. You walked along a street that had been nothing but soot-blackened ruins yesterday and today a new house – or more than one – would be standing there, built overnight by torchlight and by people who once wouldn’t have given each other the time of day. The city never rested for the length of a heartbeat and work went on continuously: stones were knapped, ruins cleared, charred beams sawn up, soup kitchens provided for labourers, burnt earth turned over. The air was filled day and night with the sound of hammering and sawing and the ringing of anvils, with shouts and laughter and cries and oaths. Nobody really slept at this period. You can sleep in your funeral urn; sleepers get eaten by Nurns! – that was a favourite saying. There have been no legally prescribed closing times in Bookholm since then and many bookshops still stay open all night, even today.’

  Laughter could always be heard somewhere in the Fumoir. Sometimes it was the resonant bass of a giant printer with a handlebar moustache, sometimes the hoarse giggle of a dwarf, and sometimes an abrupt peal of laughter from a whole group. The good mood seemed to be infectious.

  ‘But the most surprising thing,’ Ovidios went on, ‘was that hardly anyone moved away. Only a few disheartened individuals turned their backs on the city even during the darkest chapter in its history, the ban on fire. You’ve heard of that, I suppose?’

  ‘Yes,’ I said, nodding.

  ‘Perhaps it was because everyone knew that, although the devastation was terrible, the city still possessed a unique substructure comparable to a huge diamond mine, an inexhaustible treasure chamber: the Labyrinth, with its catacombs and vast store of precious books. It was paradoxical. The evil realm down below, of which many are more afraid than of death itself – the darkness from which destruction arose in the shape of the vengeful Shadow King – was at the same time the glue that bound us all together. It was as if we were reoccupying a volcano that had recently erupted. No, no one ran away, in fact, the opposite occurred. The Great Conflagration occasioned no exodus; it led to an influx of immigrants such as the city had never known before. Adventurers, bibliophiles, authors and would-be authors, publishers with no premises, unemployed editors, translators without commissions, printers, glue boilers, masons, bookbinders, roofers, book dealers – in short, intellectuals and craftsmen of all kinds were magnetically attracted to the half-devastated but newly flourishing city. Nowhere but in Bookholm could people make such a fundamentally fresh start, whether with the pen or the bricklayer’s trowel. Only in this crazy city could they participate in a collective renaissance and nowhere else, if fortune smiled on them, could they become so stinking rich!’

  The ashtrays danced, Ovidios thumped the table so hard, but no one took any notice. One of the gnomes raised his head briefly, blinked in a bewildered way, then slept on.

  ‘The influx of people in search of fresh opportunities simply didn’t dry up. Once the adventurous pioneers and the old inhabitants had relaid the foundations, more circumspect individuals – those who had cautiously observed the phenomenon from afar – also moved in. They had capital and business acumen to offer as well as physical strength and the will to work. Experienced chefs opened restaurants, leading publishers opened branch offices and established authors from other cities moved to Bookholm, all eager to share in this fresh start. Only here, it was believed, did true literary creativity flourish. At night the taverns teemed with young and still unknown but boundlessly garrulous and ambitious writers, with financiers, scouts and agents eager to discuss their ideas for new business models and publishing houses. They all wanted to reinvent Bookholm, to make it bigger, more beautiful and even more lucrative. Simultaneously naive and greedy, and sometimes even laughable, their efforts were also touching and inspiring. It was impossible to escape the new city’s positive energy; it swept you along as soon as you set foot in its streets. Viewing the matter quite objectively, one could say that we owed it all to the Shadow King.’

  I pricked up my ears. ‘How do you mean?’

  ‘Let’s face the facts. He purified the city with his avenging fire, preserved it from impending decline, and halted the insidious process of decay initiated by Pfistomel Smyke and his henchmen. We’re in his debt. Indeed we are, even though the vengeful bastard burnt down half the city! The Shadow King nearly killed me, damn it! He was responsible for nearly boiling me to death in my pit like a lobster!’

  Ovidios roared with laughter.

  ‘But to me he’s Bookholm’s greatest hero, the true ruler of this city and our secret king. We ought to put up monuments to him, one in every street! That’s my opinion, anyway, and I’m certainly not alone.’

  And then, my beloved brothers and sisters, something truly remarkable happened. At the mention of the Shadow King and Pfistomel Smyke, the fumes around Ovidios began to dance. At first I thought this was caused by a gust of air from the flue above our heads, but it was something different.

  The smoke assumed ever more concrete forms. The swaths and clouds of vapour became bodies and faces. I rubbed my eyes and the apparitions disappeared. I breathed a sigh of relief, sat back, looked again – and there they were once more, the billowing clouds. And this time they actually resolved themselves into familiar figures!

  ‘Something wrong?’ asked Ovidios.

  ‘No, no,’ I said evasively. ‘The smoke’s stinging my eyes a bit, that’s all.’

  It was as if the ghosts of my past were dancing around Ovidios’s head. Were those some Booklings peering over his left shoulder? Was that Ahmed ben Kibitzer winking at me over his right shoulder?

  I rubbed my eyes again, opened them wide, closed them again, reopened them – and they were still there, those phantoms, more distinct than ever! That was Pfistomel Smyke who had materialised behind Ovidios with his arms folded, grinning impudently at me! Some Animatomes emerged from the fog, fluttered around my fellow Lindworm’s head and disappeared into it once more. Were those speaking death’s heads beside him and, if so, was I losing my mind? Before I could say anything to the disturbing apparitions, the door of the Fumoir opened and a noisy group of newcomers entered, creating a draught. The
smoke swirled and dispersed, and the phantoms danced up the chimney with it.

  I heaved a sigh of relief. What diabolical herbs were being smoked in here? Did they accord with legal regulations?

  ‘Go on,’ I urged Ovidios. He gave me a worried look but complied.

  ‘It was the fire,’ he said, ‘that turned medieval Bookholm into a modern city and replaced outmoded Bookemistic hocus-pocus with up-to-date Biblionism.’

  ‘Biblionism?’ I said. ‘Sounds like a disease you can catch in public libraries.’

  ‘My, it really is a long time since your last visit! You’ve missed out on a few important things, Optimus. All that antiquarian book alchemy is old hat. Biblionism is the new thing. Everything’s biblio these days. Biblio-this, biblio-that!’

  ‘I may rather have lost touch,’ I conceded, ‘but I can learn. I’m sure you’ll bring me up to date.’

  ‘It isn’t complicated. Complex, though. Ours is a city governed by books. Biblionism is the umbrella term covering all book-related scientific disciplines, professions and social phenomena – plus one or two other things. Simply imagine the whole of daily life lumped together in a paper bag: that’s Biblionism. Look around you. What do you see?’

  I complied with his injunction. ‘A bunch of total strangers smoking too much,’ I replied, rather disconcerted by the question. The truth was, I could still see a few Animatomes fluttering beneath the ceiling, but I preferred not to mention that.

  ‘Exactly,’ said Ovidios. ‘And they all look different in their own ways, right? There are gnomes, Moomies, Demigiants, Froglets, Norselanders, Viridians, Moories and Midgard Midgets – not forgetting Lindworms, eh? How can one keep one’s perspective? I’ll tell you: through Biblionism, because what unites us all is our close relationship to books. It’s like a sentence in print: it consists of different-looking letters seemingly jumbled up at random, but you can read it all the same. And it makes sense! You can even laugh at it if it’s funny. That’s how Bookholm works. That’s Biblionism.’

  ‘Bookholm makes sense?’ I said.

  ‘Now don’t be pedantic! Biblionism isn’t a religion or association or political party, nor is it a really exact science with fixed rules. It’s the ethos of modern Bookholm. Not a sinister alchemistic spirit like old-time Bookemism, but a spirit in the sense of understanding and enlightenment. Would you like a few examples?’

  I nodded. What was he talking about?

  ‘Then I hope you’ve got some time to spare. No one Biblionist is like another,’ said Ovidios, looking around him enquiringly. ‘That’s why it’s important to know what differentiates us, so we get along better together. Let’s see … You see that Vulphead over there in the long raincoat?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘He’s no Bookholmer. He’s got a shopping bag from Leafwood Antiques. No local inhabitant would buy anything there, it’s only for tourists. On the other hand, few tourists ever stray into a Fumoir. That means he’s a Bibliomaniac.’

  ‘Really?’

  Ovidios drew a deep breath, which in this room was the equivalent of a lungful of smoke from a well-filled hookah. ‘The Bibliomaniac’, he went on, ‘embodies one of the most popular types of visitors to Bookholm. He’s animated by a desire to buy as many books as possible and take them home with him. An average book collector, in other words. As long as he does this within the limits imposed by law and refrains from shoplifting, the Bibliomaniac is the city’s most welcome visitor. We all live off him. Bibliomaniacs are a very sizeable group.’

  I could do this myself now, I thought. Recognising someone as a Bibliomaniac by a shopping bag full of books wasn’t particularly hard.

  ‘But that was no feat of deduction,’ said Ovidios. ‘Nearly everyone in Bookholm is a Bibliomaniac of some kind. From now on it gets harder. Let me see …’

  He scanned the smoky Fumoir, craning his neck in an impressive manner so as to peer into every corner. ‘Well now,’ he muttered, ‘in this room at present are … a Bibliophrene … two Bibliots … a Biblioclast … a Bibliopath … a Bibliophobe – no two Bibliophobes! Three Bibliomancers—they’re unmistakable. And, er … yes, a Biblioscope, over there by the bar! And that’s only at first glance. Visibility is pretty limited in here. No Biblionnaires today? No, not one. They tend to be rare.’

  Quite apart from the fact that I didn’t know the meaning of those terms – except that they were obviously Biblionistic subcategories – I hadn’t the slightest idea how Ovidios managed to distinguish so eloquently between the Fumoir’s various occupants. What were Bibliots? What were Bibliomancers? Was he pulling my leg in some subtle fashion?

  ‘Well, well,’ I said cautiously, sounding faintly sarcastic.

  ‘Don’t you trust my Biblionistic powers of discernment?’ Ovidios demanded, raising his eyebrows. ‘You ought to, I’m pretty good at it. I’m a Lindworm of private means and a professional idler, so I’ve plenty of time and leisure for people-watching. What’s more, I’ve read all Doylan Cone’s Hermes Olshlock novels umpteen times. They’re a great aid to training one’s eye and powers of deduction. Listen, I’ll prove it to you. Look at that Demidwarf in the green loden coat two tables further on.’ He indicated where he meant with an almost imperceptible jerk of the head.

  ‘The one with four books parcelled up beside him?’ I asked.

  ‘Exactly. You see the cloth bag at his side with the neck of a bottle protruding from it? That fellow is a Biblioclast, ten to one.’

  ‘A Biblioclast?’

  Ovidios nodded gravely. ‘You bet your life he is! The books are relatively inexpensive second editions, probably unsigned – not top-notch, in other words, but certainly the most expensive he could afford. The bottle may contain some paper-dissolving chemical, possibly hydrochloric acid. You can tell that from the wax-sealed glass stopper with the death’s head on it – Bookholm pharmacies are legally obliged to use those. You see his unhealthy-looking, yellow-tinged eyes? The tremor in his hands? The yellow eyes indicate liver damage caused by regularly inhaling toxic fumes. So does the tremor, but that’s also a sign of anticipation. He can hardly wait, the swine.’

  ‘Hardly wait for what?’ I asked.

  ‘To go home and kill those books lying beside him.’

  ‘What!’ I couldn’t suppress a puzzled laugh.

  Ovidios sighed. ‘Biblioclasts are obsessed with a compulsion to destroy books. You can bet that individual will go up to his room, open a good bottle of wine, toss the books into a bathtub and pour the hydrochloric acid over them. That’s his idea of heaven.’

  ‘Are you sure?’

  ‘He may set light to them, put them through the mincer or tear them into little pieces by hand, and then pour acid over them. One thing’s for sure: I wouldn’t like to be one of those four books of his.’

  I was shocked. ‘Is this really true?’ I said.

  Ovidios leant across the table and lowered his voice.

  ‘Biblioclasts’ behaviour can have many causes. The most frequent is a disease that any good psychiatrist could cure completely. Another is more ideological. Biblioclasts of that type don’t hate books as such, just certain books selected for their contents. Many of them are political crackpots or members of religious sects. Then there are also some inspired by purely personal motives. We have a well-known Biblioclast here in Bookholm who only hates a certain book and tries to destroy whole editions of it. The book is his own unauthorised biography.’

  Ovidios sat back with a grin. I took another look at the fellow in the green raincoat, but this time with different eyes. I felt sorry for the books at his side.

  ‘Don’t look now,’ whispered Ovidios, ‘but there’s a Bibliomat sitting right beside us. Three chairs further along.’ He rolled his eyes in the relevant direction.

  The person sitting there appeared to hail from Watervale, to judge by his translucent skin and greenish hair. He had a great stack of books beside him, as well as several publisher’s catalogues, probably free of charge. He was feverishly leafi
ng through one of one of the latter.

  ‘Bibliomats’, Ovidios said softly, ‘are mechanical readers. ‘It doesn’t matter to them what they read, they couldn’t care less. They read while walking around or standing still, sitting or lying down. They read while eating or having a coffee, while shopping or standing in a queue; they simply read all the time. They lead an obsessive, joyless, futile existence and display no noticeable emotional reaction to what they read. Ants would read that way, I imagine! Ask a Bibliomat what he’s just been reading and he’ll be terribly embarrassed because he’s instantly forgotten it. Hardly surprising, if a person can’t tell the difference between a sonnet by Aleisha Wimpersleake and a list of chlorinated cleaning fluids.’

  I gave a start. The mere mention of Wimpersleake’s name was a painful reminder of the Booklings – and of the manuscript I had with me. But Ovidios was already continuing his exposition. ‘And that couple two tables away – they’re Bibliots. You can easily recognise them by their identical clothes.’

  They were two Yellowlings in orange habits, both of whom had shaved their skulls. I’d seen some of their kind in the streets and wondered if they belonged to a sect.

  ‘If it were up to me, I’d drive the whole bunch out of the city!’ Ovidios’s voice had taken on a note of uncompromising indignation. ‘Bookholm needs those parasites like it needs Kackertratts! Bibliocy is the worst form of ignorance about books. Bibliots not only read no books on principle, they flatly deny their existence – and that while actually standing on a pile of them.’ He directed a fiery glance at the Yellowlings.

 
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