I have just finished reading the quite entertaining book Rumo and His Miraculous Adventures by German author Walter Moers. It is doubtful whether I ever would have purchased this book for myself — it being both outside of my typical choice of genres and relatively obscure — yet I did read it because it was given to me by one of my most intellectually distinguished friends, the anthropologist Alexander Mawyer (an old U of C buddy, now a professor at Lake Forest College). And because Alex is both a cultivated student of fine literature and a voracious consumer of culture both popular and fringe, and also has so often recommended fine reads to me in the past, I trusted his guidance, even though this dauntingly sized 600+ page trade-paperback promised to suck up many long hours of my precious and limited reading time.
After reading the book, I remain unsure as to how to categorize it. It is tempting to classify it as children’s literature. Moers is both a writer and an illustrator, and his book is animated in both words and pictures by a fanciful and delightful wit and whimsy that many people would associate with Juvenile fiction. A blurb from the Washington Post on the cover of my copy shows that its critic so classified it; the writer describes Rumo as “Equal parts J.K. Rowling, Douglas Adams, and Shel Silverstein … a work of monumental silliness.” In truth, that’s an inept and pathetic description, a failure of critical imagination. The only thing Moers has in common with Silverstein is that they are both self-illustrating writers. And while there could be many points of comparison with J. K. Rowling (a male central character, a school, a struggle with the forces of Evil, a prevalence of strange and inventive names and fantastic creatures), it is doubtful whether any of these comparisons would prove particularly fruitful, I think, since Rowling’s fantastic parallel world of English schoolchildren has an entirely different generic feel, literary purpose, intended audience, and, most importantly, stylistic level. Rowling is a writer whose simple style and schoolchildren’s theme is meant to ensnare the minds of (our inner) ten year olds longing to grow up. Her whimsical side is mere color; the humor found in her books has the stale feel of adolescent television programming, and the focus throughout is on the drama of coming of age. Whatever else Rumo may be, it is not really a “coming of age” story. The writing style could be argued to come closer to Adams, I suppose, whose central character in the Hitchhiker’s Guide books also wanders through a series of unfamiliar and fantastic adventures set in a twisted and humorous imaginary universe. But again, the comparison is fruitful only if one highlights the differences. Adams uses extremely economical language, tells a straightforward adventure story, and employs his humor in a satirical and critical fashion entertaining to both young readres and adults. His novels are short and uproariously, bitingly funny. That isn’t Moers at all. Rumo is sprawling, epic in scope, and, while it is occasionally quite funny, humor seems not to be its central purpose. Adams is a humorist; Moers is more like a dungeon master.
Seting apart the German Moers from these English authors, the Juvenile Rowling and the Adolescent Adams, is a literary fascination and preoccupation with violence, bloodshed, warfare, and destruction. Moers’ mixes a dead serious, Homerically clinical poetry of bloody violence with his madcap literary hallucination. In my view, this moves the book out of the category of Juvenile and adolescent fiction and into the domain of geek lit. He is a comic-book Tolkein. The story takes place in a completely fantastic imaginary world (Zamonia). This world doesn’t seem unfamiliar. In literary terms, Rumo seems rather to be a lampoon, or a lark, constructed from an unlikely literary composite of familiar epics, fairy tales, legends, fantasy novels, horror pictures, biology and physics textbooks, and natural history museum exhibits.
As a writer, Moers’ greatest gifts lie in two areas; the first is “the fantastic synthesis of unlikely juxtapositions” (for example, one of the main characters is an amphibious creature called a “Shark Grub”) and the second, even greater gift, is his talent for world-creation through composition of lists.
Hardly a page of this novel goes by without one of Moers’ fabulous lists. Moers uses lists to create and describe scenes, rooms, persons or creatures, histories, landscapes, events… you name it. For an example, consider this scene in which the main character, Rumo, a kind of bipedal horned talking swashbuckling dog called a Wolperting, visits a fairground:
Rumo pricked up his ears. The air was throbbing with sounds that were never to be heard on other occasions: singing saws, glockenspiels, demonic cries, Vulphead madrigals, wooden rattles, mouth drums, foot bells. Laughter rang out on all sides, mingled with shrill cries of terror from the ghost trains and the squeal of bagpipes. Hordes of musicians playing curious instruments competed for the public’s attention and strove to drown each other. Bassophonists made the ground shake, a Bufadista soprano sang of unrequited love in old Zamonian, stallholders did their best to outshout one another, rockets soard hissing into the air, paper ducks quacked, tin drums beat a tattoo (283).
The next paragraph lists the amazing sights that Rumo’s eyes beheld, and then, on the same page, comes this paragraph:
Then there were the smells: cinnamon, honey, saffron, grilled sausages, roast marsh hog, dried cod, mulled wine, smoked eel, baked apples, onion soup, incense, tobacco smoke, goose dripping. Outside most of the booths that sold food were small braziers in which garlic and onion bulbs were burnt to lend the night air an appetising aroma. Goose, chicken and turkey legs encased in clay cooked slowly in pits filled with glowing charcoal. A thick, fragrant soup of pigs’ trotters and peas simmered in a massive cast-iron cauldron. Potatoes and onions were sautéed in thyme-flavored oil, quail fried in lard, trout grilled on sticks. Legs of lamb sizzled over open fires, corn cobs and loaves of bread were baked in clay ovens. A whole ostrich revolved on a spit while ravenous Montanic Dwarfs sat round it clattering their knives and forks. Myrrh was burnt, joss sticks smouldered, masked Moomies tossed curry powder into the air. Rumo continued to cling to Urs.
This is an ancient and epic literary technique, found as early as the Illiad, where Homer makes frequent use of lists, both to sketch vast tableaux of actions and events, and also to describe ornate objects, such as Achilles’ shield. Moers uses and abuses the technique marvelously, transforming it into a style rococo, and in the process giving himself free reign to sketch in and invent the fascinating details of his imagined world. One can flip almost randomly through the book and find scores of them: “Saponic Leeches, Oilsnakes, Dungworms, Suckerfoot Spiders, Bateriomorphs, Plauge Frogs, Trogloticks, Speleovampires — those were the true masters of this dark damp domain” (521).
And his lists aren’t the only thing that remind me of Homer. Rumo’s adventures seem to be modeled after the Odyssey right from the start. When the Wolperting begins his adventures as a prisoner and potential food source, held captive in a floating cave by terrifying but incompetent one eyed “Demonicles,” one is hard pressed not to recall Odysseus and the Cyclops.
Rumo is self-consciously modeled on the form of a saga, retold in the world of the comic-fan convention. Near the end of the novel, Rumo’s telepathically talking sword Dandelion admonishes him for failing to speak up during a campfire session of storytelling:
“Why didn’t you say anything?” Dandelion demanded. “Our own experiences would surely have made the best story of all. The fight in Nurn Forest! Yggdra Syl! The casket! The Icemaggogs! The Vrahoks! General Ticktock’s innards! Ideal subjects for inclusion in lessons on the heroic sagas!”
“I’m no good at telling stories,” Rumo protested.
Rumo may not be a great Bard, but Moers is more than up to the task, the Arrian to Rumo’s Alexander.
I don’t have anything much profound to say about this book. I just want to indicate my appreciation for the imaginative impulse that brought this world to life. It’s a good read, and worthy of your attention, if you like macabre and bloody action stories set in improbable landscapes peopled by talking horned dogs and five-brained absent minded professors. Thanks Alex!
Walter Moers, Rumo and His Miraculous Adventures (trans. John Brownjohn; New York: Overlook Press, 2004; Paperback edition 2007) 688 pages; $16.95; ISBN-10: 1-58567-936-4 / ISBN-13 978-1-58567-936-2.