Monday, April 2, 2012

The City of Dreaming Books

Who does he think he's writing for, this Walter Moers, with his 160,000 word, self-illustrated tome about a bookish dinosaur who dreams of becoming the greatest writer in Zamonia? Who would want to read such a monstrosity? A bunch of eighth grade boys in Damian's class, that's who. The Zamonian tales are their newest enthusiasm, and a strange one it is.

I read this book because Damian insisted.  He had already insisted I read Rumo & His Miraculous Adventures, a previous Moers novel about a Wolperting (dog-like, lightning-fast fighter) who becomes a great hero of Zamonia, following his sweetheart even to the depths of the underworld.That book struck me by its pure, unending inventiveness and remarkably graphic violence.  Characters range from one-eyed Demonocles who eat their victims alive to Shark Grubs with their swollen maggot-like bodies and fourteen little arms to the Copper Killers, ruthless mechanical warriors patched together from dead soldiers and their weapons.  Despite its profusion of dangers and strange stories, Rumo wore me out, and it took me a long time to finish. 

Then it was on to The City of Dreaming Books.  I'd like it better, Damian insisted, because it was about literature. And so it is. All the dinosaurs of Lindworm Castle fancy themselves as writers, so when Optimus Yarnspinner's authorial godfather dies leaving him the finest story he has ever read, young Optimus (only 77 at the time) sets out for the city of Bookholm to find the story's anonymous author.

Bookholm is a city of publishers, bookstores, critics, and bibliophiles, built above collapsed catacombs full of ancient and often fabulously valuable books. Poor Optimus, naive, stuffy, and a bit slow on the uptake, is in over his head. He has read all Bookholm's lore, but he's a lousy judge of character or danger, and before long he's exiled and wandering in the deadly catacombs, where greedy Bookhunters would just as soon take off his head and the mysterious Shadow King sighs and kills.

But the journey of the hapless dinosaur - a writer who has never yet written anything worthwhile - is also a story of the quest to become a writer. Optimus has read just about every great piece of Zamonian literature. Now he's trying to have some life experiences as well. He's hypnotised, poisoned, crushed, pursued, attacked, imprisoned, taunted, befriended by the gentle Booklings... and throughout it all he remains largely a passive observer, noticing telling details and literary references while barely escaping with his life. Then he falls under the power of the dreaded Shadow King, and his true literary apprenticeship begins.

Witty, playful, violent, excessive, often terribly dark, and written in archaic style ("Dear Reader"), The City of Dreaming Books seems hardly likely to delight either a teenager or an adult writer. But in the end, its sheer celebration of the power and possibility of literature does both.  What writer can help but sympathize with Optimus, reading for days in the Library of the Orm, transfixed by the beauty and power of books?  Surely there's a twinge of recognition when he constantly introduces himself as a writer, albeit one who has not yet written anything. And in the end, when Optimus escapes fire and horror to see for the first time the Alphabet of the Stars, we fervently hope the inspiration of the Orm will animate him for a long time to come.

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