Everything is about books! That s a sentence that probably sounds appealing to most of the people reading this, as it sounded appealing to me. In this books that sentence is both literally and metaphorically true. The food in this book is book-shaped, the places and characters are in one way or another obsessed with books, the book is full of anagrams and other references to books, and the book is full of quotes from ‘other’ books.
This book is the fourth part in the ‘Zamonia’ series, written by Walter Moers. Zamonia is a fantasy continent and each book is set in a different part of it. This means that all the books have a different theme, with different main characters. Therefore, the books are easily read as separate books and because each book has another theme, everybody can find something of their own liking. Rumo, for example, is about a society inspired by how dogs interact with each other. Ensel und Krete is a rather imaginative re-telling of Hansel and Gretel, sadly not yet translated into English. The book discussed in this review is about books. The city of dreaming books is by far my favourite in the series, partly because it’s about books and partly because I think it is the best one I’ve read so far. I’ll try to explain why in this review.
Zamonia is inhabitated by all kinds of different creatures, some resembling insects, others mythical creatures, others animals and there are even humans in some of the books. The city of dreaming books, however, is about Hildegunst, a Lindworm, who dreams of becoming a writer. The English readers know him as Optimus Yarnspinner, but I think the original name is the coolest ever, so I use that one. Lindworms are especially suitable for authorship, because they grow very old, which gives them a lot of time to perfect their writing style and their claws are perfect to hold a pen to write neatly. Also, because they are a kind of dinosaur, Lindworms can take criticism well because of their thick hide, or so it is explained in the book. Hildegunst lives in the Lindwormburcht, which is the homemountain of the Lindworms and famous for all the writers it produces. The story starts when Hildegunst’s authorial godfather, Danzelot is dying. An authorial godfather teaches a lintworm about books and writing. The last thing Danzelot tells Hildegunst is to go find the author of a mysterious piece of perfect writing he once received for feedback. Danzelot never heard from the author again and has always felt guilty for not helping the mystery author. Upon his authorian godfather’s death, Hildegunst packs his bag and goes to Bookholm with the piece of writing to find the author. Bookholm is the capital city of everything books and writing related.
There are two quests in this story: the one for the writer of the perfect story, and one for Hildegunst to search for ‘Orm’. ‘Orm´, is a kind of universal source of divine inspiration. Especially the older people in Zamonia believe attaining Orm is essential to write books worthy to be called a piece of art. Hildegunst is of the generation of ‘new’ writers and does not believe in Orm, to the great sorrow of his godfather. However, it is obvious there is something special about the piece of perfect writing his godfather bequeathed to him, for when Hildegunst reads it he laughs and cries and forgets everything around him for the duration of the story. Afterwards he is dumbfounded. This is basically the reaction everyone has upon reading of the story. The reaction of people on the perfect story makes it apparent that writing and stories can also be very dangerous in this world, even deadly in many different ways.
All the books surround a band of fantasy characters on a fantasy continent. The only connection to the world as we know it is how the people react to each other. In a way Moers uses his stories to parody the real world and make this book a satire about the publishing world. I personally always like it when an author uses an imagined setting to tell something about humans. Fantasy seems to create a certain distance, which makes it easier to critique, and to make fun of the habits of humans. The writer himself, Walter Moers, is a mysterious man. He lives somewhere in Germany, and nobody is really sure who he is, despite the fact that his books are well-known in Germany -an impressive feat in these modern times. There are, I think, one or two bad quality pictures of him and an audio recording. Moers also claims that he did not write the Zamonia books, but merely translates them for the real author from ‘Zamonisch’. Hildegunst von Mythenmetz is the real author. The fact that Moers himself is such a mystery, gives the opportunity for wild theories: is Hildegunst anything like Moers? Is Hildegunst a critique of Moers on how writers are, or maybe Moer’s own hermit lifestyle is a way of giving all the attention to the real writer of the books, or is Moers just having some fun with the readers by creating a slightly annoying character and subsequently be very mysterious about it? As a reader it is often a bit frustrating to be made fun of, but if it is true that in this case, Moers has found a delightful way to make fun of, and with it, his readers. Hildegunst is a famous writer in Zamonia and The city of dreaming books is part of his own autobiography. He has an enormous ego, and does not really learn much from his own mistakes. This makes it a different narrator from the standard action heroes in books. Often Hildegunst is making life difficult for himself, because he says something stupid or does not listen to good advice, and ofcourse as a reader you, consequently, get the satisfaction of stuff going wrong and laughing in frustration at someone who thinks he knows everything already. Also he experiences the most amazing adventures, and while he is fighting for his live he still manages to complain and to be a hypochondriac – you would imagine with so many things actually almost killing you, you would stop imagining silly stuff trying to kill you.
This book was originally written in German, and luckily I managed to read it in both Dutch and German, which gives you the opportunity to hear about the difference between translation and original language. To me the German language always comes across as super precise, which worked very well for this book, especially because Moers invented many new words. Because Germans are used to merge several words together for a new word, Moers’ invented words are easy to understand. I do not know how that translated to English though. In my opinion German seems very suitable for fantasy that parodies, and where the use of language is very important. The humour of this book is dependent on the language. I initially read the Dutch version a few times, otherwise I would never have managed to read through the German one, and that one was good as well. However I think I prefer the German one because the play on words is just better. Although, beside all the magic Moers does with his writing skills the book is still a joy to read in any language, because of the imaginative story, its obsession with everything BOOKS, and the fascinatingly annoying writer Hildegunst.
One downside of Moers’ writing is that he tends to be a bit long-winded. This could be explained because the character Hildegunst is one of those writers who really likes his own writing, however there is a fine line between making a joke and making a story boring, by stalling the story too much. Lots of the wordy distractions give details about the world, so if you like to get as much detail of a world as possible, those diversions might not bother you at all. For me sometimes the diversions were too long, taking away from the action and pace of the book. Because of the many diversions there are many things about this book I did not manage to tell you about. For example I did not mention the terrifying booklings, the shadowking, the evil Smyke, bookbread, Eyedeten and gruesome bookhunters, and finally the amazing illustrations in this book! This book is simply full of amazing fantasy elements you’ll have to discover for yourself by reading the book. Meaning this is a book you should certainly go and read for yourself.
Book awards because of books, books and even more books!
Walter Moers, Die Stadt der Träumenden Bücher (München, 2004)
Bella G. Bear