For most of you who have been our blogging friends for awhile now, you would know about my unreserved love for German author Walter Moers. I reviewed his City of Dreaming Books and its sequel The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books (which admittedly tested my patience a little bit), The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear, Rumo and his Miraculous Adventures, and Alchemaster’s Apprentice. As far as I know, this is the only Moers book I haven’t read yet.
I was very thrilled to find this in our library and even more excited to note that it fits our current theme perfectly with a knight’s quest, the ubiquitous presence of Death and his sister Dementia, and triumphant deeds to experience life and all its strangenesses by a twelve year old boy who is determined to live.
Unlike the other Moers’ novels that I’ve read which were illustrated by Walter Moers himself, this book is inspired by twenty-one woodcut artwork created by Gustave Doré, French painter and illustrator who was born in 1832 in Paris and died in 1883. As the author explains it at the end of the book, the reproduced artwork come from Gustave Dore’s artwork found in volumes such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Orlando Furioso by Lodovico Ariosto, The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes among others. I have a special fascination for surreal artists, with Hieronymus Bosch being one of my absolute favourites. This novel, however, elevated Doré to the list of artists I vow to be more intimately familiar with.
The story begins with a 12 year old boy named (surprise, surprise) Gustave Doré, the unlikely captain of the ship called Aventure, being lost out to sea, and battling a Siamese Twins Tornado. While he survived by accidentally finding himself at the “eye of the storm, the zone of absolute stillness in the heart of the tornado” his ship was in ruins and for all intents and purposes, bound to die. This is proven by the very presence of Death himself aboard his ship as you can see in the illustration below.
However, Gustave discovered through Dementia, the unstable, unpredictable but occasionally-beautiful sister (a true wild card if ever there was one) that if Gustave manages to fulfill the tasks set out by Death, he might be given a lease of life. Kind of like a get-out-of-jail free card.
Here are the tasks given Gustave (pp. 13-16 from the book). I thought it would be good to share them with you as you might suddenly find yourself in a similar predicament. This would be good to know.
Task Number One: You rescue a beautiful damsel from the clutches of a dragon.
Task Number Two: You traverse a forest swarming with evil spirits.
Task Number Three: You have to guess the names of three giants.
Task Number Four: You must bring me a tooth belonging to the Most Monstrous of All Monsters
Task Number Five: You must meet yourself.
Sixth and final Task: would only be known after all five tasks have been completed and would be handed over in Death’s home on the moon.
The book is written in Moers’ usual quick and biting wit that never gets tired or hackneyed, his superb capacity for imagery, and his astute understanding of a young and gifted boy’s sensibility. Often, a lot of people wonder what could be in a surreal artist’s head as they draw their pictures that seem to be culled from out of nowhere or what their dreams/nightmares are like. Here, Moers provided a window to Gustave Dore’s soul – how accurate he was is a matter to be resolved by Dore himself who happens to be in the afterlife now.
A Wild Ride Through the Night by Walter Moers suggested by twenty-one illustrations by Gustave Doré. Translated from the German by John Brownjohn. Published by The Overlook Press, 2008. Book borrowed from the public library. Book photos taken by me.