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The Gist by Michael Marshall Smith

The Gist cover
Limited Edition $60.00
Trade Edition $35.00
  • Length: 80 pages


Printed in two colors throughout, designed by Michael Marshall Smith.

“The conscious extraction of meaning from a procession of words is not, after all, the only way of interacting with a text, or with anything else in the world…”

A dealer in old books, lost books — books no-one knows even exist. A man who works for him, prizing meaning from places where it is deeply hidden. A book, at first unintelligible…but which begins to reveal its secrets in ways the translator could never have guessed.

This is the story of The Gist, but that’s only the beginning of the journey. Michael Marshall Smith’s original novelette was then translated into French by Benoît Domis, before being rendered back into English by Nicholas Royle —who had no access to the original text or author during the process.

All three versions are presented in this edition. The idea is to discover what happened during the process, how much the story changed while passing through two other minds and another language…

To see if The Gist survived.

Limited: 300 signed, numbered copies, bound in leather
Trade: Fully cloth bound hardcover edition

From Publishers Weekly:
“This ambitious collaboration attempts to get at the very roots of storytelling…Smith’s short story explores the ways information morphs during translation. Opening in a specialty store for ‘lost books,’ the tale follows barfly John as he struggles to translate an esoteric volume for porcine bookseller Maurice Portnoy. Although skilled in over 15 languages, John is stumped by the mysterious book, which he assumes to be written in code. Days are spent in the local bar pouring over the pages, but to no avail. Then one morning after an all-night bender, John awakens in a private, enclosed park where a man speaking a cryptic language that strikes John as somehow familiar. As John’s drinking continues, so too does his descent into this enigmatic tongue.”

From SFRevu:
“…the gist of The Gist survives the difficulties generated by the two consecutive translations, providing the reader with an enticing piece of dark fiction and with the captivating results of an unusual linguistic experiment.”
 

The Gist
(excerpt)

 

‘I’m not doing it,’ I said.

Portnoy gazed coolly back at me. ‘Oh? Why?’

‘Where do I begin? Ah, I know—let’s start with the fact you haven’t paid me for the last job…’

‘That situation could be remedied.’

‘…or the one before that.’

The man behind the desk in front of me sighed. This made his sleek, moisturised cheeks vibrate in a way that couldn’t help but put you in mind of a successful pig, exhaling contentedly in its sty, confident that the fate that stalked its kind was not going to befall him tonight, or indeed ever. A pig with friends in high places, a pig with pull. Pork with an exit strategy. The impression was so strong you could almost smell the straw the pig lay in—along with a faint whiff of shit.

‘Ditto.’

‘Great,’ I said, briskly. ‘We’ll attend to the financial backlog first, shall we? Then I’ll get onto the other reason.’

‘You sadden me, John,’ Portnoy said, as he reached down to the side and opened the top drawer of his desk. This meant, as the desk was double-sided, that the corresponding drawer-front on my side disappeared. From his end he withdrew a cheque book that was covered in dust. Literally. ‘Anyone would think you do this only for the money.’

‘Anyone would be absolutely right.’

‘I don’t believe you.’ He tilted his head forward and allowed his spectacles to slide down his nose, the better to inspect the means of payment now laid in front of him. After a long pause he flipped it open, and peered bemusedly at the contents.

‘Forgotten how to use it?’

He looked at me over the rims of his glasses, as if disappointed. ‘Surely you can do better, my boy.’

‘Perplexed by the instructions printed thereon?’ I elaborated, ‘Which must presumably be in Latin, at least, or Indo-European? Perhaps even facsimiles of petroglyphs representing routes to local lunching spots, with crosses indicating wine bars and the nearest cab rank?’

‘Better. What manner of total were you expecting? For the two alleged late payments?’

‘Seven hundred and fifty quid. Because it’s three. The Diary of Anna Kourilovicz, remember?’

‘Good lord.’ Portnoy shook his head, evidently wondering what had overcome him to vouchsafe such outlandish sums. I said nothing, however. I’d come this far in a settlement negotiation before to find Portnoy suddenly derailed by a phone call, an ill-advised comment on my part, or some movement of the spheres only he could sense. If that happened the whole process had to start again, at a later date, and so I wasn’t going to let it go pear-shaped this time. I needed the money, badly.

He took a pen from his tweed jacket—a pen which had, I entertained no doubt, cost him far more than the sum currently causing him such pain—and wrote in the book, concluding with his ponderous signature. He tore out the cheque with an oddly decisive movement and waved it in the air to dry the ink, before finally laying it on the desk.

I grabbed it and stuffed it in my wallet with a thick wash of relief. The rent was paid. Say what you like about Portnoy—and people did say many things, on the quiet—but his cheques never bounced.

‘You’re a gent.’

He grunted, and sat looking at me while re-igniting the fat and noxious cigar which had been idling in a saucer at his elbow. I watched, and waited, casting half an eye over a page of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, purporting to be from the original folio edition, that Portnoy had framed on the wall behind his desk. Those who knew Portnoy only slightly suspected the page of being fake, there to impress the naïve. People who knew him a little better, as I did, were prone to believe it was genuine—and that he’d started the rumour of it being fake just to mess with people’s heads. Along  with many other aspects of Portnoy’s life and business, it was unlikely the real truth would ever be known.

As always, his basement office was murky, lit only by a small, old lamp on the corner of the desk, and thin slats of light striking down from a high, pavement-level window on the far wall, enlivened by turning motes of dust. The effect was so subdued that you couldn’t see what lined all four walls, or stood in haphazard-seeming piles over most of the floor, to almost shoulder height.

You could smell them, though, even through the permanent fug of cigar smoke.

Books. Thousands of them.

‘Well?’ he said, eventually.

‘Well what?’

‘We’re square. So what was the other reason?’

‘Simple.’ I picked up the object that had been the initial focus of our conversation. ‘It’s a fake. Or nonsense. Or both.’

‘I don’t believe so. The gentleman I obtained it from has an immaculate record in providing me with titbits.’

Titbits. An interesting word for volumes that routinely fetched Portnoy upwards of ten, twenty or even a hundred thousand pounds. ‘He’s let you down this time. What’s the provenance?’

For a moment the dealer looked shifty. This intrigued me. Despite being roguishly dishevelled, and somewhere in that indefinable age (amongst the portly and ruddy-faced) between late-forties and mid-sixties, there was a word I always applied to Portnoy in my head. Sleek.

But now, for a period of time perhaps equal to that required for a hummingbird to flap its wings (once), he didn’t look sleek.

‘You needn’t concern yourself with that,’ he muttered. ‘I already have. I’m satisfied.’

‘Well, that’s okay then,’ I said, standing. I had a mind to celebrate payday with a visit to the pub, starting immediately. ‘You don’t need me to—’­

‘A thousand,’ Portnoy said.

I sat back down. I realised immediately how very like him this was—not merely doubling my usual fee, but going straight for the financial jugular. He had the measure of me, and knew it. So did I.

‘Maurice,’ I said.

He winced. Apparently I always said it wrong, making it sound either too much or not enough like “Morris”, I’d never been clear which.

‘I honestly think it’s a fake, or a joke.’

‘It’s neither.’

‘In which case I’m still not the man for the job.’

‘You are.’

I laughed. This was ridiculous. ‘How can I translate something out of a tongue I’ve never seen before? Which I don’t even think is a real language?’

‘I’m confident you’ll uncover the gist.’

‘Look…’

‘For twelve hundred pounds.’

Twelve hundred meant not just next month’s rent, but a replacement laptop (second hand, naturally, and scuffed after its most recent descent from the back of a lorry), of which I was in dire need. It meant a small gift for Cass (assuming I could track her down), in which case she might consent to being my sort-of girlfriend again, or at least going through the motions once or twice.

It meant a very long evening in the pub.

Portnoy reached into his jacket and pulled out his wallet. From this he drew a wad of notes, and slowly sorted the wheat from the chaff. I read them from where I sat. Six hundred quid. He coughed, a long, wet-sounding eruption bedded deep in his lungs.

‘Half now, half when you come back,’ he said, when he’d finished.

My head was spinning. Portnoy never paid except on completion—and this was nearly as much as the sum I’d just levered out of him, much of which had been owed for nearly two months.

‘Just do what you can, my boy,’ he said. ‘Hmm?’

I picked up the book and the cash and left before he could change his mind.