I’m not sure if this is a short story at all, although God knows what it is if it isn’t. Basically, A Perfect Vacuum is a collection of reviews of imaginary books. Some of them are intriguing, some of them are preposterous and some are quite clearly impossible. ‘Gigamesh’ is one of the impossible ones.
I first came across A Perfect Vacuum when it was packaged along with the novels Solaris and The Chain of Chance in a King Penguin edition back in the eighties. Obviously it was Solaris that I was mainly after and the utter madness of A Perfect Vacuum came as a complete and delightful surprise extra.
As with Borges, I could have picked any one of the ‘stories’ in A Perfect Vacuum, because they’re all equally entertaining and intellectually challenging in their own way. The novel ‘Gigamesh’ purports to be an attempt to out-Joyce Ulysses by describing the final thirty-six minutes in the life of the gangster ‘GI Joe’ Maesch in bizarre and allusive detail. In the course of it, the novel – plus copious notes that run to twice the length of the original text – supposedly explores all the various hidden meanings implied by the name.
I think the following quote gives a flavour of Lem’s ‘review’:
To continue, Gigamesh is a GIGantic MESS; the hero is in a mess indeed, one hell of a mess, with a death sentence hanging over his head. The word also contains: GIG, a kind of rowboat (Maesch would drown his victims in a gig, after pouring cement on them); GIGgle (Maesch’s diabolical giggle is a reference – reference No 1 – to the musical leitmotif of the descent to hell in Klage Dr Fausti [more on this later]); GIGA, which is (a) in Italian, ‘fiddle’, again tying in with the musical substrates of the novel, and (b) a prefix signifying the magnitude of a billion (as in GIGAwatts), but here the magnitude of evil in a technological civilization. Geegh is Old Celtic for ‘avaunt’ or ‘scram’. From the Italian giga through the French gigue we arrive at geigen, a slang expression in German for copulation. A different partitioning of the name, in the form Gi-GAME-sh, foreshadows other aspects of the work: GAME is a game played, but also the quarry of a hunt (in Maesch’s case, we have a manhunt). This is not all. In his youth Maesch was a GIGolo; AME suggests the Old German Amme, a wet nurse; and MESH, in turn, is a net – for instance, the one in which Mars caught his goddess wife with her lover – and therefore a gin, a snare, a trap (under the scaffold), and, moreover, the engagement of gear teeth (e.g., ‘synchroMESH’).
If that kind of thing takes your fancy, I would thoroughly recommend A Perfect Vacuum. It’s genuinely unlike anything else I’ve encountered.
First published in English in A Perfect Vacuum, Secker and Warburg, 1979