The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers [A Review]

From the first time I saw it in a bookstore, The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear was a book I simply could not walk away from. In a rare occasion of reality meeting very high expectations, reading it delivered everything I hoped for.

Bluebear’s earliest memory is of being tiny and alone, adrift on the ocean in a walnut shell-half. Unknown to him, he was heading for the Malmstrom; a gigantic permanent whirlpool. Just when his life seemed to be ending before it has really begun, he is rescued at the last moment by the Minipirates.

The Minipirates as you would guess are miniscule pirates, so small most people are unaware of their existence. When they attack regular-sized ships, those ships and their crew continue on unaware that there is an attempted assault underway. The Miniprates each have two peg legs, two iron hooks for hands and an eye patch over either their left or right eye. They are, however, the world’s best seamen, able to negotiate any storm. In his time aboard their ship Bluebear learns all they have to teach him of seamanship and becomes a master knot maker.

But Bluebear soon starts to outgrow their ship, as you can tell from the picture on the book cover. With no alternative, the Minipirates abandon Bluebear on an island with a bottle of seaweed juice and a loaf of seaweed bread. So ends the first of Bluebear’s lives.

By the end of this book, Bluebear will have shared with you half of his 27 lives filled with extraordinary adventures in an around Zamonia – a continent between Europe and America which has since disappeared beneath the waves. The Malmstrom is just the first of many natural hazards he will have to overcome, from underground labyrinths, inescapable forests and uncrossable deserts, even travels between dimensions and through time. He will have to survive encounters with incredible monsters from a cyclopean black whale, the hallucinatory spider witch and the incredibly annoying Troglotroll (never trust a Troglotroll!). As with the Malmstrom, Bluebear often finds safety in the nick of time.

Bluebear also makes some extraordinary friends during his adventures. Creatures of various kinds that provide him with company and support, education and employment but who also have their own desires and agendas.

The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear is a book that bewitched me when I first sighted it. It was a book I had not seen anywhere else, had nothing to recommend it beyond what the cover contained, yet it sounded fantastic and I felt anxious every time I put it back on the shelf to buy something else. Inevitably seduced by its charm, I just had to have it!

Written and illustrated by Walter Moers, The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear is written in a first-person perspective as if you are reading Bluebear’s memoirs. It is also an example of a book that contains a fictional book within it. That book is The Encyclopaedia of Marvels, Life Forms and Other Phenomena of Zamonia and its Environs by Professor Abdullah Nightingale. A bit like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear the reader is treated with excerpts from the Encyclopaedia explaining the various Zamonian phenomena as Bluebear encounters them.

What is interesting is how the nature of the excerpts evolve through the book. At first, you may think that Bluebear, as narrator, is quoting these excerpts for the benefit of you, his reader. We later learn that the Encyclopaedia’s author, the seven-brained Professor Abdullah Nightingale, was Bluebear’s main educator. Nightingale believes that knowledge is transmitted via bacteria and he infects Bluebear with a burst of knowledge by hugging him.

So, the Encyclopaedia excerpts included in the story are not necessarily the result of Bluebear’s narration. Instead they are bits of information that pop into his consciousness like a memory that has been unsuppressed. They are therefore part of the narrative as well; the relevant information appearing either too late or just in time to be of use to Bluebear in his adventures, or often of no use at all!

The Encyclopaedia even comes to answer Bluebear’s thoughts back, as if it has been completely assumed into his consciousness.

I sometimes had the peculiar feeling that Professor Nightingale was calling me on the telephone, as it were, and that it wasn’t the Encyclopaedia inside me speaking at all.

When I look over my favourite books, I do not believe that there is much of any pattern to be discovered. One that could be argued for, especially when I was a child, was that I enjoyed stories that were journeys or quests, where the main character or group of disparate characters, travel through a magical world. Stories with an episodic structure, framed around fantastic obstacles that the characters must overcome, often bringing their individual strengths or weaknesses to the fore as they either succeed or succumb. Some of my favourites from childhood that have these elements include Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Gulliver’s Travels, The Odyssey and, as a teenager, Jurassic Park.

The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear certainly contains these elements that I enjoyed from the others. The Odyssey-like feel is very evident, especially in Bluebear’s early adventures which are mostly on islands and the open sea.

I was feeling wonderful. It seemed that the wind in my fur and the wild sea beneath me existed solely to transport me into a world of adventure. Could anything be more exciting than a journey into the unknown, a voyage of discovery across the great wide ocean?

Three hours later my raft lay becalmed, bobbing in the midst of a vast expanse of motionless water. Could anything be more tedious than a sea voyage?

Like Odysseus, Bluebear not only has to survive encounters with terrifying monsters and deadly environments, but also has to confront his own weaknesses from greed, gluttony and lust to delusions of grandeur. But whereas Odysseus is a warrior, Bluebear is more of an artist. Repeatedly, Bluebear finds himself having to survive, find employment or at least pass the time, and the way he does that is by becoming a performer.

As well as The Odyssey, are there other allusions made in The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear? Possibly. During one of his lives, Bluebear finds himself lost in the immense Demehara Desert. There he encounters the Muggs – a tribe who have been wandering the desert, possibly for generations, in search for the fabled city of Anagrom Ataf and following a strict observance of twelve rules they discovered on a piece of paper in a glass bottle.

When Bluebear unexpectedly manages to lead the Muggs to the city of Anagrom Ataf, he finds himself proclaimed the ‘chosen one’ by the Muggs. Unfortunately, the city is not very habitable and the Muggs not well suited to settled living, but they daren’t abandon the destination of their spiritual quest. Bluebear finds he must exploit his position as ‘chosen one’ and the Muggs’ gullibility for prophetic signs in order to set things right.

There is not much I can fault this book for. Bluebear’s 12th life, spent in the Zamonian city of Atlantis, is easily the longest and includes a lot of lists and descriptions of the various life forms who inhabit the city, styles of architecture and Atlantean literature. While this can be longwinded, it is countered by some wonderful imagination. Zamonia has not escaped contact with the rest of the world and there are aspects of human culture that have been absorbed. A member of a generation younger than myself might accuse Moers of ‘cultural appropriation’ here but I certainly would not.

From what I can tell, The 13 ½ Lives of Captian Bluebear was the second of Moers’ books to be translated into English. There is now a whole series of ‘Zamonian’ books of his available. The fact that I have no plans to read any more of them should not be taken as an indication of my enjoyment of this one, only of how many other books I have to read! Perhaps one day my daughter will read this book and if she decides she wants to read more, maybe that will the time that I read more too.

Because the truth is that I enjoyed this book immensely. Most of the way through, I found it to be fun and good, but perhaps not great. But the tense, exciting and ultimately very satisfying ending convinced me that it was much better than that and should be mentioned alongside Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Gulliver’s Travels, The Odyssey, and Jurassic Park as one of my favourites of a similar type.

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