People usually start life by being born.
Walter Moers’ The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear perfectly demonstrates the principle of fiction – total escapism into the fantastical.
This title has followed me for well over a decade, ever since I first saw its striking yellow cover in Waterstones when I was 11 – it’s certainly not a novel you can bypass or, apparently, forget! I finally succumbed to purchase earlier this year and began an imagination-fuelled journey of whimsy and satire, punctuated with Seussian-style images.
The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear unsurprisingly revolves around the adventures of Bluebear (a cerulean, large caniformia ursidae who strangely enough never becomes a captain in any of the featured tales…). The novel is beautifully told and creatively formed as our narrator recounts the first half of his 27 year life (and no there isn’t a sequel, a bear has to have some secrets after all). From his earliest memory of floating on the high seas in half a walnut shell to hurtling towards The Malmstrom in the closing chapters, the audience is treated to vast variety of richly suspenseful adventures broken down into chapters (lives).
Each life begins a new storyline, in a new area of the fictional world of Zamonia. Narratively speaking this means that with each chapter a new stage has to be set. Some readers may find this structure too formulaic and a little predictable whereas I found that it provided some stability in counterbalancing the hugely diverse narrative content between chapters. Yet the flow of the novel was compromised – just as you had built up one adventure, you are immediately plummeted into building up the next. As a way of coping with this disruption, it might be worth approaching the novel as a collection of mini novellas – think of Friday night reminiscences from the weird, old sea-dog Bluebear sat propping up the bar in your favourite tavern…
Now high-fantasy fiction is something I usually avoid at all costs because, with two failed attempts of Tolkien under my belt, I always get utterly lost or at least worry that I will and complicate the matter! The writing style of Captain Bluebear is both incredible and accessible – totally coherent and even peppered with explanations and definitions from an internal encyclopedia (‘Encyclopedia of Marvels, Life Forms and Other Phenomena of Zamonia and its Environs’). Reading this remarkable tale, you get the feeling, such is the detail, that Moers not only wrote this book but lived, dreamed and breathed it
There is a danger at times when the detailing becomes overly excessive and the book transforms from an enjoyable fantastical novel into a stream of imagination. The opening of life 12 ‘My Life in Atlantis’, for example, is almost excruciating. Leading in with 17 pages detailing every species living in the city followed by 12 pages of Atlantian architecture/culture/politics/transport, most of which is totally irrelevant to the later story, is a tad unnecessary even for those of us who resist skipping parts of books! (Stick with it though; it became one of my favourite lives! (odd sentence!))
This book, whatever its objectives or faults, makes you smile. Written by an expert storyteller, Captain Bluebear makes you turn the page and it takes you on not one journey but 13 and a half. And if that’s not value for money, I don’t know what is.