Thursday, 8 May 2014

City of Dreaming Books

It was a Monday. I’d finished most of my work at my desk and was now working my way through all the book cases, all the racks, and all the titles, making sure none were misplaced: a tedious task if you have to do it for hours. But then again, I do seem to have the right kind of patience for such things.
I was already all the way up to the letter M when I found this little pearl. The cover has books drawn all over it, and a circle smack in the middle of the spine; a circle separated in three by swirly lines. The part of me that loves mysteries, symbols, the occult and very old things, something that I’d like to imagine looks like a very tired cartoonish dragon, lifted its head from its arm and sniffed hopefully.

The City of Dreaming Books is written by Walter Moers, who was first known as a cartoon artist. The books he wrote (and this being one of them) are the very elaborate back story to the creatures he made up. And let me tell you; if you are impressed by Pratchett’s imagination, this is right up your alley. The main character in this book is Hildegunst van Mythenmetz (Optimus Yarnspinner in English, and Hildegunst von Mythenmetz in German). He’s a lintworm (literal translation: tapeworm) of the dinosaur variety. I didn’t get it either at first, but he’s described as a reptile with claws and wings, so I guess being a tapeworm is just the author’s way of fucking with you.

Hildegunst grew up in a castle built on a mountain with all of his dinosaur kin, who are all renowned writers and poets. He’s in his seventies (still quite young) when he inherits a manuscript from his “poet-godfather”. The manuscript is literary gold: it makes him laugh, cry, and shout out loud at how true it is what he’s reading. He decides to search for the author, knowing he went to Boekheem (or Bookholm in English) to find a publisher.

And then we get a description of Boekheem that’s about 100 pages long, but it’s so worth it.
Boekheem is all about books. It is a city filled with book-antiquarians, publishers, bookshops, book-cafés, editors, critics, and workshops where they make ink, paper or letters for the printing press. There are almost literally books everywhere. That’s why it’s nicknamed the city of dreaming books:

“And there they were, the dreaming books. That’s what they called the antique book hoards, because from a trader’s point of view they weren’t exactly alive anymore, although not quite dead; they were in a sort of in between state that was something like sleeping. Their true existence was behind them, decay before them, all gathering dust in the cases and chests, basements and catacombs of Bookholm. Only when a book was picked up and opened by a searching hand, when it was bought and taken away, that’s when it could come alive again. And that’s what all these books were dreaming about.”

And the city is just the top of the iceberg. Underneath Boekheem is a vast labyrinth, stuffed to the brim with old books. It stretches for miles and miles and miles underneath the ground, filled with traps and vicious creatures and bookhunters who try to find valuable books; a place where luminous jellyfish are the only source of light, where everything wants to kill you.

Hildegunst arrives in this city in high spirits, but soon lands in the wrong company. He is drugged and dragged deep into the catacombs, and Hildegunst has to survive Sphinxxxes, bookhunters and Harpyres, all the while knowing that there’s a shadow king out there who leaves his victims covered in papercuts…
To try and summarize: this book is genius. Because Hildegunst hasn’t written anything yet but will soon, he gets a lot of advice, like these:

‘never write a novel from the perspective of a doorknob’
‘if a period is a wall, then a colon is a door’
‘taking from one author is stealing, but if you cite several authors it’s research’

or just in between the lines:

“A body?”
“A mummificated body. It looks a bit like… but you’ll see.”
“Are cryptic hints as literary tools even allowed?” I asked, waiting nervously.
“No,” said he. “Only second-rate writers use cryptic hints to keep the attention of the reader. Why are you asking?”
*end of the chapter*

Or using anagrams to talk about famous writers like “Orca de Wils”, “Balono Zacher” and “Aliesha Wimperslake”. (points for who can guess all three)

So sure, Walter Moers uses the same old fantasy model of a young man going through adventures and needing to be brave to save the world, and he even has a Gandalf-figure along the way, but the fact that he’s a dinosaur (because dinosaurs!) and that nothing is truly what it seems gives such a twist that this story feels very refreshing to read. I might even say that I haven’t been dragged into a book like this since Rothfuss.

Y’all need to read this shizzle, people.

Until next time,


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