Summary: It’s my toughest case yet: what seems to be a 14th-Century manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, only the second one ever discovered. Genuine or a fake? It’s my job to find out.
Another morning. I unlocked the office and raised the dusty Venetian blind in case I needed to open the window and bug out. You never know in my business.
If the place looked bad the night before, it was worse in the daylight — if “light” is what you’d call the faint glimmer that penetrated 80 years’ worth of L.A. atmosphere caked over the window.
I spent most of a chilly, overcast Los Angeles day poring over that purported manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I had to work fast, because the British Museum was impatient to have it back. If you think that’s easy, take a look at this, part of page one:
Yeah, I know. Your job’s tough, too.
I’d found a few variances with the original MS, but nothing unusual: derne instead of derve; confusion about pronouns: he for both “he” and “they,” her for either “his,” “her,” “hers” “their” or “theirs.” Nothing unusual.
They might be simple scribal errors. Or — if the thing was a forgery — they were the sort of intentional variances a reasonably astute scholar would insert to make it look slightly different from the original.
But, there was this one puzzling line ….
I had more to read, but shoved the MS in the desk drawer. I had to move around, ask some questions. Somebody must know something. I got the Yugo started and headed for the port: San Pedro. Go ahead and laugh about my Yugoslavian car, but in strongly Serbo-Croatian San Pedro it’s like a Rose Parade float: Everybody cheers.
I had a tip (don’t ask, my sources are proprietary — unless the money’s right) there was a guy at a ship’s chandlery who knew about a shipment of ancient parchment that’d been heisted from a container ship a couple of years earlier.
I kept thinking to myself: “Chandlery … chandler ….” There was something there …. I couldn’t shed a ray of light on it though: something familiar….
I found Lubomir Lubomović — 50-ish, slender, energetic — in a warehouse on 4th Street crammed full of everything from sides of beef to Voith Schneider cycloidal drive propellers. He acted busy until I put my hand in my wallet pocket in a suggestive manner — suggesting it actually contained cash — and he suddenly had time for me.
It took me 20 minutes — including letting him drive the Yugo while he described the triumph of Serbo-Croation engineering it represented — but I got him to talk. There had been a theft of a crate full of blank 13th or 14th Century parchment, originally stolen from a monastery near Rieka in Croatia (previously looted from a Venetian trading vessel somewhere around 1350), where it had sat unused for centuries after paper became the preferred medium.
That parchment had changed hands enough times that its contraband status had gotten hazy, and it was destined for an L.A. institution to use in restoring Medieval manuscripts when it disappeared from the container in L.A. Harbor. Because it was pilfered to begin with, the museum couldn’t exactly file a police report. They were stuck holding an empty bag. Boo hoo.
I thanked Lubomović and lammed it out of there before he could remember he was expecting a bribe. I stood on the sidewalk of the gritty old port town, thinking.
It made sense. There’d been a lot of buzz about some astoundingly genuine-looking parchment being used for forgeries lately. Maybe my Gawain was one of them, laid down by some clever hand on looted Venetian parchment.
A number of places I could go next. I’d love to drop over to the Belaying Pin down at the harbor and see if Doc Sportello was in the bar, but Tom Pynchon goes ape when I steal one of his characters and sics Pig Bodine on me. Or I could try to catch Harry Bosch on his boat at the marina, but Michael Connelly has him carrying a gun all the time with orders to shoot potential copyright infringers on sight. I was on my own.
I needed help. I had three good contacts who might help me connect stolen ancient blank parchment with a genuine-looking Middle English manuscript:
Delia Engels, my brilliant former grad school classmate, now a senior rare manuscripts director at the Beinecke Library at Yale.
I could track down quirky old Chip Wroxton, probably still on his converted barge on the Grand Union Canal in Northamptonshire. A tremendous scholar, but he couldn’t tolerate the bureaucracy of university life.
And, there was Luciana: Luciana Notastere, head of comparative Medieval studies at the University of Bologna. A towering figure in the field now, she’d been a fellow PhD. candidate with me at Göttingen (ah, Luciana!).
How could I resist? I’d see Luciana again, a pleasure in itself, all professional demands aside. Too time and tide and human frailty made it unlikely I could sit with both Luciana and Wroxton at the same time, but it wasn’t in the cards. I’d go to Bologna.
She might help me with that puzzling line I’d found in the erstwhile Gawain: Ȝe bigge sleepe.
Continued in Episode 3: “Beauty and Intellect in Bologna.”
© Brad Nixon 2016. Doc Sportello, Pig Bodine and The Belaying Pin © Thomas Pynchon. Harry Bosch is the creation of Michael Connelly.