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Issue #124 - December 2005

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Found in Translation

By Cheryl Morgan

I have Sean Wallace to blame for this. There was I, quietly perusing the books on the Prime table at World Fantasy Con, when Sean drags me across to Larry Smith’s stall. "You have to get this," he said. The "this" in question was a large yellow book with a cartoon picture on the front. There’s a large blue bear and some small pirates in a rowboat. I looked inside.

The Minipirates were the masters of the Zamonian Sea. Nobody knew this, however, because they were too small to be noticed.

I bought the book.

As a result I learned rather more about Minipirates than might be safe for my sanity. I also learned about many other inhabitants of the now lost continent of Zamonia. I learned, for example, about the villainous Troglotroll, the fearsome Spiderwitch, the monstrous Bolloggs, and the unbearably cute Wolperting Whelps. I also learned more about Minipirates.

The Minipirates had little iron hooks instead of hands and wooden stumps instead of proper legs, not did I ever see one without an eyepatch. At first I thought they’d been wounded during their reckless attempts to board a prize, but I later leaned that they were born that way, complete with hats and moustaches.

The book is called The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear, and is by a German writer called Walter Moers. The book says nothing about Mr. Moers’ sanity, but it does say that he drew all of the helpful cartoons and maps that illustrate the book. Some of them are very silly indeed.

Captain Bluebear himself is not silly. He is merely occasionally unfortunate, perhaps overcurious, and in earlier times of his life possessed of a certain amount of youthful impetuosity that gets him into more trouble than he would perhaps like. For example, hitching a lift on The Eternal Tornado was perhaps not the best decision he ever made. But then again, he did have problems with his education.

Early on, Bluebear was taken in as a pupil by the famous Professor Abdullah Nightingale, who is more intelligent than anyone else in Zamonia by virtue of having seven brains. The professor is an expert in Darknessology, indeed he was the first person to successfully extract Dark Matter from the universe. Unfortunately his experiments left behind a number of Black Holes that have puzzled astronomers ever since, but that’s their problem, not his. The professor also dabbled in many other areas of science, including inventing a volcanic suit that allowed him to explore the insides of volcanoes.

During one of his dives in Krakatoa’s still active crater Nightingale discovered the lava-breathing fire-fish, a species he not only caught and tamed but contrived to use as the basis of a new invention, the fire-fish-powered cave-heating system. If fire-fish were deprived of lava and placed in ordinary drinking water, they automatically changed their cellular structure and transformed themselves into a kind of living lava. The aquatic creatures breathed water like normal fish and thus made it boil. Fire-fish could also be used for brewing coffee, although they left a slightly fishy aftertaste. They were really only suitable, in the gastronomic domain, for making bouillabaisse.

When Bluebear finished his studies, Nightingale implanted within his brain a copy of his most famous work, the Encyclopedia of Marvels, Life Forms and Other Phenomena of Zamonia and its Environs. The encyclopedia had the miraculous talent of automatically informing Bluebear about the nature of any marvel, life form or phenomenon he encountered, almost immediately after he had encountered it and had made some rash or foolish decision based upon his then lack of knowledge.

Fortunately the Captain was a very resourceful bluebear, otherwise he would not have lived through more than thirteen lives by the time he came to set down his memoirs. Had he not been so, he would not have escaped the Spiderwitch. Nor would he have survived falling into a Dimensional Hiatus and visiting the 2364th Dimension, home of his school friend, the Gelatine Prince, Qwerty Uiop. And of course he would not have made his way safely to the greatest city in Zamonia, Atlantis itself.

By employing a series of diplomatic stratagems, the Norselanders had taken over the reins of government while the kings confined themselves to ceremonial duties. The latter did little more than attend the opening of new supermarkets, run marathons for charity, deliver graveside addresses at the funerals of prominent citizens, or turn up on major sporting occasions. (One exception was King Snalitat XXIII of Tatilans, who had lost his reason at some stage during the Zamonian war of succession and ran naked through the streets making unintelligible government announcements. His last edict was that all Norselanders over the age of thirteen be painted yellow and lined up in a row to have their feet tickled.) The people of Atlantis really governed themselves, a system that worked well at times, less well at others, and sometimes not at all.

The book says nothing about the effect on Herr Moers of translating Captain Bluebear’s memoirs, or indeed of the effect on John Brownjohn of transcribing them into English. However, it is noticeable that the good Captain’s lives appear to get longer, more adventurous and somewhat less believable with time, suggesting the onset of an insidious form of mania that affects writers from time to time. It is possible that all of this is the fault of Bluebear. He was, after all, employed as a dream composer inside a Bollogg’s brain, and became the champion congladiator of all Atlantis (the peculiarly Atlantean sport of congladiatorial combat involves two persons telling tall tales in competition with each other). His reports of life in Zamonia are therefore somewhat suspect, especially as that fabulous continent has now sunk forever beneath the waves. Whatever the truth of the matter, I would recommend that readers approach this volume only a few pages at a time. Extended reading might result not only in the developed of certain manic tendencies, but also in severe damage to the muscles of the face, respiratory system and stomach. You have been warned.

The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear - Walter Moers - Overlook - hardcover

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
Masthead Art copyright Steven Stahlberg (left) and Gerhard Hoeberth (right)
Additional artwork by Frank Wu & Sue Mason
Designed by Tony Geer
Copyright of individual articles remains with their authors
Editorial assistants: Anne K.G. Murphy & Kevin Standlee