For the past several weeks, I have been waxing lyrical over two wonderful authors: Ray Bradbury and Walter Moers. I have just recently posted my review of The City of Dreaming Books for our previous bimonthly theme on Books about Books. Now, I go back to Zamonia and share with you the adventures of a seabear named Captain Bluebear. I simply can not get enough of Moers’ genius. I also thought that it would be a good addition to our current bimonthly theme Stream of Stories and Whispering Water Tales.
Fantastical (borderline-surreal) Adventures and Some. This is escapist literature at its finest. If the world is too much with you, I invite you to slip ever-so-quietly into a world peopled by chromobears (an image of cute care bears comes to mind), hobgobglins, gryphons, toothworms, Zamonian wolpertingers, Rickshaw demons, duodwarfs (among a gazillion other creatures) culled out from the farthest recesses of Moers’ imagination gone feral, the surreal brought to absurdly marvelous heights – it renders the tautological phrase ‘prodigiously outlandish’ without meaning whatsoever. It is disciplined madness, lunacy whipped into submission, creativity channeled into demiurgic proportions – enough to fill more than 700 pages of text peppered with 136 black and white illustrations by this German storyteller who must have lived a hundred thousand lives (or more) to come up with a tome such as this one.
The novel begins with our unlikely hero, a bluebear named .. Bluebear, “naked and alone in a walnut shell” (p. 11) – very biblical in its allusion. Apparently, bluebears have 27 lives and this book only shares its first half (13 and a half years to be precise), because after all, a bluebear is entitled to his secrets. Each chapter talks about each of Bluebear’s lives and how he survived his “Life on Gourmet Island,” “Life as a Navigator,” “Life in the Demerara Desert” and so on (see here for a complete list of Bluebear’s lives). Rather than discuss each ‘life’ with you, my esteemed readers, allow me to just share a few snippets on Bluebear’s existence which has the most bearing to our current bimonthly theme – his life as a minipirate and his life on the run.
It was during this early period in Bluebear’s evolution that he mastered the art of tying knots, navigation by sea, and gained an intimate knowledge of the water’s waves and its various forms.
He also had the great fortune (or misfortune) of being taught the powers of articulation by the Babbling Billows during his “Life on the Run.” As a lover of words, I couldn’t help but long for mentors such as the Billows. According to Bluebear:
They taught me to murmur and maunder, gabble and prattle, whisper and bellow, converse and confabulate, and – of course – to babble like themselves. They also taught me how to deliver a speech or a soliloquy and initiated me into the art of persuasion; not only how to talk someone else to a standstill, but to talk my way out of a life or death situation. I learned to hold forth under extremely difficult conditions – standing on one leg, for instance, or doing a pawstand, or speaking with a coconut in my mouth while the Babbling Billows showered me with seawater. – p. 60
Encyclopedia of Marvels and Professor Abdullah Nightingale. What makes this book infinitely amusing for me (probably irksome for a few) is the fact that the narrative is frequently interrupted by excerpts from the Encyclopedia of Marvels, Life Forms and Other Phenomena of Zamonia and its Environs by Professor Abdullah Nightingale. Yes, our Bluebear actually has a talking encyclopedia in its head – the pertinent details come unbidden in his memory when he least expects it – kind of like having an invisible friend in your head that talks to you in facts and figures, only, you don’t know when it will start sharing relevant information. It does have a life of its own, come to think of it.
As an academic, I was also deeply impressed by the education that he received in the Gloomberg Mountains from Professor Abdullah Nightingale, a Nocturnomath.
A run-of-the-mill Nocturnomath has three brains, a gifted Nocturnomath four, a Nocturnomath of genius five. Professor Nightingale had seven. One was in his head, four grew out of his skull, and a sixth was located where the spleen normally resides. As for the seventh, that was an object of eternal speculation among his pupils. (p. 127)
Bluebear’s schoolmates are as unique as he is, and quite brilliant too. There’s Fredda, an Alpine Imp and Qwerty Uiop, the Gelatine Prince from the 2364th Dimension. I also enjoyed how out-of-the-ordinary their course syllabus is. If only more schools offer the same kind of training:
We were given no homework, no classroom projects, no marks, no oral tests. Nightingale asked no questions, never checked our state of knowledge, and never urged us to pay attention. He simply spoke and we listened.
Asking questions was completely taboo. Nightingale alone decided what subjects to tackle and when, what syllabus to study, or when it was time to move on to something else. He was like a radio whose knobs were being twiddled by a madman. He jumped from molecular biology to petrology, from petrology to ancient Egyptian architecture, from that to the study of putrescent gases on other planets, and from that to entomology with a detour that embraced the portrayal of the three-winged Zamonian bee in Atlantic encaustic paintings of the 14th century. We were taught what mattered most about Florinthian cheese sculptures, the caryatid culture of the sacred buildings of Grailsund, the therapeutic properties of the Peruvian ratanhia root, the mating dance of the Midgard Serpent, the leading lights of Zamonian speleology (of whom Nightingale was one), and the 250 principles governing the Alphavillean Declaration of Independence – all in a single afternoon. (p. 147)
One of the things I find to be particularly fascinating, though, with Professor Abdullah is his affinity with darkness. In fact, he goes as far as claim that knowledge is darkness:
“The thing is, darkness has such a bad reputation. People always associate it with unpleasant things, but it’s simply another – albeit darker – form of luminosity. We need it quite as much as we need light. Without darkness everything would wither and die…
… Darkness is pure energy. Your reserves become depleted during the day. You burn them up, grow weary, and have to sleep some more. In the dark you accumulate fresh strength, and so on… I’m convinced that a person who only lives at night need never die…
… On the contrary! That person would accumulate more and more strength until he developed into something surpassing our present powers of comprehension: highly distilled intelligence coupled with immortality! Eternal life! Eternal night! Eternal intelligence!” (pp. 167-168)
I invite you to challenge Professor Nightingale (the premiere and sole expert of nightingalology) with the seven brains about his ideations, and do tell me how it goes.
Astrophysics with a Multidimensional Twist. I promise that this is the last quote that I would share from the book. Moers has twisted the notions of physics, the time-space continuum, and black holes and merged them all together in a ball of utter derangement that it actually begins to make absolute perfect sense. I just can’t help but share this wondrous definition of multidimensional space as found in Professor Nightingale’s encyclopedia. If you figured it out, do email me to provide a different kind of illumination (that goes beyond a candle in one’s head):
It is really quite easy to picture a square yard of multidimensional space – provided you have seven brains.
Simply picture a train travelling through a black hole with a candle on its roof while you yourself, with a candle on your head, are standing on Mars and winding a clock precisely one yard in diameter, and while an owl, which also has a candle on its head and is travelling in the opposite direction to the train at the speed of light, is flying through a tunnel in the process of being swallowed by another black hole which likewise has a candle on its head [if you can imagine a black hole with a candle on its head, though for that you will require at least four brains]. Join up the four points at which the candles are burning, using a coloured pencil, and you’ll have one square yard of multidimensional space. You will also, coincidentally, be able to tell the time on Mars by the clock, even in the dark, because – of course – you’ve got a candle on your head. (p. 256)
Wit, Wordplay, and Ensuing Maniacal Laughter. I have to warn you, though, that this magnum-opus of a book is not for everyone. Some may find Moers longwinded while others might find his imagination too absurd for words and abandon the reading of the novel altogether. In fact, I invite you to click on this link to be taken to a very detailed review of Bluebear’s 13 1/2 lives that has a different viewpoint from mine.
Despite that, I have to tell you, dear friends, that no book has ever made me laugh out loud in such abandon – tears streaming down my cheeks in utter hilarity. I read several sections aloud to my ten year old daughter and my husband one evening and we all doubled over in laughter that we are left gasping for breath. I sometimes think that Moers is making fun of his reader-audience while making fun of himself in the process. And no, there is nothing about this book that I would cut or simplify, or edit with an Occam’s razor for the sake of clarity or brevity. The book’s length, droll humor, and brilliant wordsmithing are such that I can not wait to go back to Zamonia and read The Alchemaster’s Apprentice and Rumo and his Miraculous Adventures. Walter Moers is an unparalleled genius coming from a dimension (probably the 2364th as well) of his own creation.