THE PERFUME OF THE DESERT

Written by Mathias Énard
Translated by Charlotte Mandell


Mathias Énard is a French writer and translator, he studied Persian and Arabic and spent long periods in the Middle East. His novels received many awards – the notable one is The Goncourt Prize in 2015 for his novel Compass. 

It was the work of those alchemists from long ago who, Adrian claimed, succeeded in bottling the essences of nature:  the ocean at low tide, the early morning forest, a wheat field after rain or—the most difficult of all, Adrian insisted—the smell of snow.  The smell of snow on a very cold evening—Salma shivered, admiringly.  They had already mentioned a summer’s night, straw, a mountain waterfall, and were imagining the possibility of a concentrate of shooting star.  “Powder of fleeting comet,” added Adrian, a little pompously.

Sitting in the shade of the hut, where the garden (skittish palm trees, proud hibiscus, jasmine spangling the heat with white flowers) almost brutally gave way to the desert (where solitude was invented, said Adrian), Salma and Adrian were dreaming of the smell of snow, since despite the gentleness of the palms, the temperature was slowly covering their bodies and minds with a mellow boredom; the ground between the date palms was warming up with a false mist, a quivering in the air that seemed to climb the nearby dune in tiny sandstorms, as if a brood of snakes were striping it lasciviously.

Salma was discovering the oasis, the solemn coolness of evening, the stifling bell jar of noon when nothing moves, the horizon blinded by the brilliant silence of light, the morning of shadows, and the taste of mud and red earth when water is released into irrigation channels to water the plants.  Adrian was discovering Salma, her skin with its gleam of African wood, shiny and dull at once, with its secret perfume, the way you find cardamom seeds hidden between two white cotton sheets which suddenly fill the air with fragrance.  Her sweet languor reminiscent of an autumn date.

The oasis outlined a very definite border, a precise frontier between earth and sand, fire and water—it unfurled around wells and wove between the low raw-brick houses, the forgotten churches, the mosques raising their minarets like the shafts of date palms; the oasis flowed into lotuses, into slender papyrus with green, pointy stars, into fragile rushes that trembled in the evening breeze; the oasis blossomed from mauve, yellow, pale lily-orange one day to the bold red of Karkadé hibiscus, and smelled by turns of donkey, rubber, death, or—this is when Salma almost fainted from pleasure—of all the nuances of the different jasmine plants:  the sugary Foll, or Arabian jasmine, and the spicy Yasmin, mixing at night, in a long love song, with the nighttime gillyflowers, plump and heady— and all the goddesses and all the angels, Salma imagined, crossed the desert to come flitter gently about in these wafts of scent and get drunk on them.

The ground was turning clay-red, the sky’s blue purity dwindling, and all around, following the clearings and curves, the sand was piling up like an outstretched wall.

For Salma, the desert was as beautiful and unattainable as an image in a mirror.  There where solitude is invented, said Adrian, no one can venture.  It is pointless.  It serves no purpose.

“You never dreamed of exploring the sands and stones, going as far as the salt lake or the Red Sea?”

Adrian evaded the question and steered the conversation to those old Arabic alchemists who, he asserted, had managed to concentrate all fragrances.

“They were more magicians than chemists, it seems to me.”

Salma lay down on her back, hands under her head, her bare calves on Adrian’s thighs, and prepared to be extremely attentive.  She could feel a drop of sweat pearling between her breasts.

Adrian hesitated for a minute, then took courage:

“If you’re curious about the desert, you should hear this story.”

Salma closed her eyes and inhaled the sticky air of the oasis.  Adrian’s voice and accent caressed her like an ointment.

“They say that over a thousand years ago, Theodosius the Myroblite, a holy, pious man, lived enclosed in the desert as if the desert were his monastery.  This was the time of the Desert Fathers, of hermits and miracles.  Theodosius had walked far into the sands until he found a hollow in a rock to shelter him, thorn bushes to protect him from animals, and a hole of water a few parasangs away to fill his jug once a week.  What did he eat?  No one knows.  Whatever his prayers brought him.  Whatever God was pleased to send him, through the agency of pilgrims.  Often, when he heard the voices of visitors coming close, he would vanish deeper into the immensity and hide so as not to be found, and they did not find him.  Then the intruders would leave the bread, the wool robe, or the flask they had brought in front of the monk’s shelter.  All day, Theodosius prayed.  The desert resounded with his murmuring, vibrated with his prayers.” 

Adrian paused.  Salma’s legs were burning, and felt like liquid on his own.  In the distance, behind the palm trees, the desert was a world of dragons.  A swarm of tiny insects was flitting about in the long shadow of the date palms.  Salma imagined the sweetish, delicate, deep taste of orange-colored fruit in the fall.  Their softness. She asked for the rest of the story.

“Little by little,” Adrian continued, “Theodosius advanced on the path of sanctity; he advanced so far that (at least this is what the chroniclers write) he went completely mad.  Mad with a rare kind of madness.  He drank sand, ate pebbles and preached to the bushes.  He fell fainting before the beauty of an ant; he called it his queen, his love.  He converted vipers and clouds by endless sermons which he gave naked, lying on his back:  the vipers let themselves be flattered like sheep, and the clouds formed perfect white circles.  One day, alerted by another hermit, the Bishop made the journey from the city to see Theodosius’ miracles with his own eyes.  When, exhausted, he reached the Saint’s refuge, the holy man ran every which way, from one bush to another, as if possessed; he shouted “The perfume! The perfume!”  He would stop for an instant and then resume his mad running, still shouting “the perfume! The perfume!” – and this lasted several hours.  In vain did the bishop question him, that was his only reply.  Theodosius the Myroblite ended up fleeing far into the desert, and no one ever saw him again.”

Salma worriedly observed a hoverfly, motionless and stubborn, a meter above, which seemed to be challenging her. Adrian reassured her it was nothing but a fly disguised as a wasp. Absolutely harmless.

Adrian picked up the clay jug and poured ice-water over Salma’s legs, then sprinkled himself on the chest.

Once the dipteron had moved away, Salma couldn’t help but look far ahead, towards the sands, as if trying to see Theodosius’ ghost at the dazzling crests of the dunes.

“Even today,” Adrian went on, “when people pass by the hermit’s cave, with their faces turned to the east, they can feel his presence.  It’s there.  It’s the only company in the solitude, the only clue of humanity.  You’re walking along and suddenly you think you smell the perfume of a rose.  In the middle of the desert.  An indistinct rose perfume, as if you were strolling through a phantom rose garden; then the rose becomes spicier, deeper…  You are caressed by a wind that isn’t there, a wind that bears the scent of distant cedar and clove.  You turn around but see nothing.  Nothing but sand and the miraculous mirage of perfumes.”

Adrian stroked Salma’s belly; he dipped a finger in the water and drew cool circles on the young woman’s skin.

Salma tried to imagine a flask capable of containing all these instants, all these sensations.  The essence of the oasis is the mirage, she said to herself, and this fleeting thought evaporated in the humid noon heat, in the song of the muezzin and the endless throbbing of insects.

Quickly, as Adrian was getting up to refill the clay jug, Salma let herself give in to the frail sleep of happy torpor.