As 2016 came to an exhausting close, I, like many others, was considering ways to get out of the country – to rest, recharge, or possibly apply for an indefinite-stay visa. I spent weeks mulling some popular destinations: Ankh-Morpork? Too bustling. New Crobuzon? It was never quite the same after that magical first visit. Cair Paravel is too wintery this time of year; Castle Whitespire, too much like Brooklyn anyway. Ketterdam, London Below, Swindon, Ceres Station… None of these places were right.
Then it hit me like a favorite song long forgotten, now heard anew as it blasts from a car tooling past: Zamonia.
Have you heard of it? Few have; it remains one of the great secrets of literary tourism.
Zamonia is as close as any of those other more frequented locales and is accessible via a series of engrossing guidebooks. It is located somewhere out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, an inkblot of a continent with a four-fingered claw of an island off the Western coast that grasps for the Caribbean. Each wonderful tome (translated from the original Zamonian by a German fellow named Walter Moers and, in turn, translated into English by John Brownjohn) gives visitors a complete view of part of the continent: the sights to see, the flora & fauna, and even a spotter’s guide for some of the land’s more famous (or infamous) inhabitants.
Those embarking on their first trip to Zamonia might do well to start where I did: The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear. The Captain is one of the few Zamonians to have gained some widespread fame in the world beyond the continent, appearing frequently on the popular German children’s television program Sendung mit der Maus. There is also, I’m told, an animated film of some of his adventures.
He is, as his name implies, a blue bear and his book is an autobiographical recounting of half his existence, for Chromobears live 27 lives in total. Chromobears, as that name also implies, are bears whose fur is distinctly and vibrantly colored: no two are quite the same! Chromobears once inhabited the Great Forest at the north of the continent but they disappeared from both the Forest and Zamonia itself some time ago – and no one knows why. Or at least this is what the entry on Chromobears explains in Professor Abdullah Nightingale’s Encyclopaedia (referenced extensively throughout Captain Bluebear, and a work that no Zamonian traveler should be unfamiliar with). The truth, however, might be out there just waiting for an intrepid traveler to find it…
These particular 13 and one half lives take Bluebear all around the continent and the ocean surrounding it, making this book an ideal introduction to the land. How else would you know about Atlantis being located on the Eastern shore, for example, or what to do if you might fall into a dimensional hiatus? Would you be able to survive an encounter with Minipirates, a Bollogg (or its head), or a Spiderwitch? With this book, your chances increase immensely, I assure you.
Those who’ve already journeyed with Bluebear and who are returning to Zamonia for a second time might enjoy the company of someone they’ve already met, someone who can show them a different side of the continent – and so I suggest picking up Rumo and his Miraculous Adventures. Rumo is a wolperting, a wolf-like creature who can also walk on two legs and is capable of speech (as well as all manner of other civilized behaviors, such as chess-playing). He appeared in Atlantis during Bluebear’s twelfth life and he is known in some circles as the greatest hero Zamonia has ever known. Notable among his achievements are his winning of the sword Dandelion and his rescue of the city of Wolperting and all of its wolperting inhabitants, both of which are extensively detailed in this book.
The real destination for book lovers, however, is Bookholm. Curious readers will find that they have, as of this printing, two options for how to visit the city: The City of Dreaming Books and The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books. The former is a historical look at the old Bookholm, which was destroyed in a massive conflagration (a serious threat when your city is largely built of, well, books), while the latter returns some two hundred years later to a rebuilt, modern city. Bookholm is exactly what it sounds like: a city devoted to literature and book culture. It is Bookholm that I myself have just returned from; would that I could’ve stayed longer!
Bibliophiles (or biblioholics, as I like to call myself) will get quite a thrill at the idea of a city built around the creation, collection, consumption, recitation, and general consideration of the written word. There are booksellers on every block, regular readings (and good ones) scheduled in locations both public and private, and – perhaps most importantly – a great many cafés full of cozy chairs and delicious snacks. And while the authors of Bookholm might appear to be ones you’ve never heard of, it may turn out that the likes of Perla la Gadeon, Hornac de Bloaze, and Asdrel Chickens are far more familiar than you thought.
They call it the City of Dreaming Books because that’s what books do while they wait to be read: they dream. And what a dream these books, and this city, provide. Both of these adventures in Bookholm are written and narrated by Optimus Yarnspinner, a lindworm and arguably the greatest writer ever to live. (Imagine a giant dinosaur-like lizard dressed in Elizabeath finery: that’s our narrator.) The first book sees a young, naive Yarnspinner setting off to Bookholm to determine the provenance of a single exceptional short story. There, he discovers a sinister plot and is left to die in the catacombs beneath the city – catacombs full not just of books and bookhunters but of deadly creatures like the harpyrs and supposedly-deadly creatures like the booklings.
Yarnspinner’s youthful foray into Bookholm also provides an opportunity to have a near-firsthand experience (the safest kind, I assure you) with some of the Hazardous Books as well as some of the more dastardly and frightful inhabitants of the world beneath the city, including the Shadow King. The Hazardous Books are exactly what they sound like: books that can poison your mind or your body or kill you outright. Just by touching the pages of such a book, you’ve already been poisoned. Imagine the thrill (and horror) of reading about Yarnspinner picking one up and bending down to read the very tiny print only to discover that it simply reads “you’ve just been poisoned” over and over again! Yarnspinner is so talented a writer (and Moers, a translator) that the reader’s own heartbeat may pick up, their palms may get a little sweaty, and it may take a moment for the feeling to pass and ‘reality’ to reassert itself.
This is as good a moment as any to deliver a word of warning to readers who are already dashing out to pick up these books: don’t be alarmed when you flip one open to a random page to only to discover playful illustrations or typefaces that barely fit a single word across the page instead of the expected left-justified stacks of sentences and paragraphs. The various storytellers of Zamonia would not be half so noteworthy were it not for the illustrations and innovations of their translator, Walter Moers. A guidebook is only as good as the knowledge it provides and Moers sets out to provide as much as could possibly be crammed between two covers.
Take the typography, for example. The Hazardous Book that Optimus Yarnspinner picks up and the tiny type he bends down to see? Readers, too, must bend closer to the page to read it. And when Yarnspinner blacks out from poison, the following page is a sheet of black ink. When Captain Bluebear is being chased by the Spiderwitch, the reader can tell its nearness to our hero by the size of the great BOOM!s that appear on the page – getting larger in direct proportion to the increase in danger. By coupling these stories with vivid illustrations of nearly every creature, Moers has gone out of his way to make sure that would-be visitors to Zamonia will be able to tell their shark grubs from their lindworms, their muggs from their nocturnomaths, and be able to spot on sight the S.S. Moloch, the sword Dandelion, and the Homunocolossus.
Options to relocate to Zamonia on a permanent basis are at this point sadly very limited, as the continent at some point sank beneath the ocean. Known colloquially as “the great descent,” that event destroyed not only Zamonia but several other legendary continents around the world including Yhöll, Murkia, Uria, and Cataclysmia, leaving the world map much as it looks today. Of course, if time, location, and reality were truly impediments to adventures, then how could anyone know about the Morlocks or the secrets of Area X or the legendary miracle cures of Dr. Aira?
In fact, I just booked myself on another return trip to Zamonia, courtesy of another tale by Optimus Yarnspinner. This one, entitled The Alchemaster’s Apprentice, apparently deals with Zamonian cuisine and visits the least-healthy place in Zamonia – but I don’t want to know much more than that, not before I embark. And while that might be the final book currently translated, German speakers have a further two books available to them: Ensel and Krete and The Island of 1000 Lighthouses. I hope to someday experience those particular tales and visit their environs – not to mention make a final return to Bookholm in the legendary Castle of Dreaming Books.
As for you, dear reader and traveler, I envy you: it’s an altogether rare thing to visit a new place for the first time. Enjoy – and bon voyage!