I lied to a man by saying I had read Albert Camus. Maybe not his books, but I had heard and read interviews, and perhaps an essay. So, it felt like I had. The first I heard of Camus was in Paris, 1997 – there was a rally commemorating the 1961 massacre of Algerians in Paris. Camus was born in Algeria and moved to Paris at 25 years of age.
As a child born in the Philippines I had always been aware of foreigners: neighbouring Asian countries, and, of course, the Spanish, and American relics of colonialism. The African, Latin American, and other European countries became familiar to me on the Miss Universe contests. To cut a long story short, and simple, that first trip to Europe revealed the racial tensions I had not felt or observed before – a foreigner in a foreign country filled with foreigners. Not much has changed twenty years on.
What do foreign relations have to do with lying? So much! When I think about it. I admit I’ve lied before, and I will lie again, but without having done so I wouldn’t have read all of these, nor be able to ask for the truth. A lie lead me to one book, and another, to travel to foreign lands, other lives, minds, ways of being, relating, growing, and smelling.
In this third edition of ‘A collection of passages’ I found smell descriptions from Camus’ ‘The Outsider’ (I am taking a break from ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’), and Armistead Maupin’s ‘The Days of Anna Madrigal’ from his ‘Tales of the City’ series: both novels. The rest of these descriptions are from biographies and memoirs: Raimond Gaita’s father; Helen Garner’s harrowing account of Joe Cinque’s murder: Maryse Wolinski’s tribute to her husband, Georges Wolinski, cartoonist at Charlie Hebdo, who was killed by terrorists in the Hebdo office; David Foenkinos’ homage to German Jewish artist, Charlotte Salomon, who was killed, along with her husband and unborn child by Nazi’s; Lee Stringer’s written account as a homeless man in New York City from the early 1980s; Pablo Neruda’s – one of my favourite poets – vivid, dense, and pulsating stories; And, Esther Perel’s psychology book makes the cut because where would our sense of smell be without the erotic energy in our lives, relationships et al.
“The sun, the smell of leather and dung clinging on to the wheels of the hearse, the smell of polish and incense, the exhaustion from not having slept all night – all these things stung my eyes and blurred my thoughts.”
Walking in the procession of his mother’s funeral, the Outsider’s emotions bubble to the surface. We see a mother and son relationship that is close, and distant, too.
Known for her snooping, Andy (before Anna) feared his mother finding a chiffon dress in his cupboard that he’s worn a few times: “On two occasions Ana had come home from school to find the orange-blossomy sweetness of Mama’s perfume, Je Reviens, inhabiting his room like an overripe tropical garden. It troubled him more than it should have. It didn’t help, of course, that the name meant “I’m coming back.”
“How long have you had that thing?” Jake asked nonagenarian Anna Madrigal. She lifted ‘Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels’ “to her nose and inhaled the scent lingering in its cardboard bones: a hint of rosewater and Lysol that instantly genie-summoned the Blue Moon Lodge.” It was the one thing that could take her back to Winnemucca.
Romulus “longed for the generous and soft European foliage, but the eucalypts of Baringhup, scraggy except for the noble red gums on the river bank seemed symbols of deprivation and barrenness … Even the wonderful summer smell of eucalyptus attracted them (immigrants) only because it promised useful oil.”
As Romulus, and lifelong friend, Hora, talk late into the night, the kitchen fills “with cigarette smoke and the smell of slivovitz (damson plum brandy).”
“Whatever the reason, I sided with Joe Cinque. I searched for him in all the documents. But every place where he should have been was blank, without scent or colour: a point where nothing resonated.”
“I couldn’t understand how the summer afternoon could smell so grassy and good, so ordinary: how the world outside the court could continue its benevolent progress.”
Charlotte Salomon asks her grandparents what her mother was like: “The memory of her presence has faded through the years. It’s been reduced to vague sensations, imprecise emotions. It hurts to have forgotten her voice, her scent.”
“Armed men sometimes storm into the building. And stand there, inhaling the scent of decadence. Modern art must quite be simply eradicated. How dare anyone paint anything other than the blond peasants.”
Charlotte Salomon studied painting for two years at the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin, but being Jewish, in her homeland (!), became too dangerous for her during the second world war and left.
At 11:33 am on January 7, 2015, two extremists fired their guns in the Charlie Hebdo office and shot its illustrators and journalists dead.
“The smell of gunpowder fills the room.”
Julien and Nathalie from Comédie Bastille, opposite the Hebdo office, hosts the victims, and the so-called “involved” in the theatre. Julien “is listening to people who have a passionate need to speak, to tell their stories, to describe their shock, the shooting, the smell of gunpowder, and the black legs of the killers they saw from the places where they had hidden.”
In the dorm of the Bowery Mission shelter, in 1985, Lee Stringer declines a bologna and cheese on white sandwich sold from a man’s locker: “Thoughts of jockstraps and old Nikes commingling with the food kept insinuating themselves.”
Entering the Street News distribution office (The Big Issue of its time) for the first time – he then becomes editor and contributor: “The place reeked of commerce. Money poured in in its most visible form. In thick, crinkled wads of green. Even the smell of coffee and bacon that greeted you as you opened the door was a matter of enterprise.”
Visiting a friend in Valparaiso, Chile, Neruda was sleepless on a wicker armchair. His friends were sound asleep on newspapers and magazines on the floor. He heard silence, a dog’s bark, and ships whistling in the city’s port.
“Suddenly I felt a strange, irresistible force flooding through me. It was a mountain fragrance, a smell of the prairie, of vegetation that had grown up with me during my childhood and which I had forgotten in the noisy hubbub of the city life.” Neruda probed the chair to source the aromas. It had tiny drawers, and “in them I could feel dry, smooth plants, coarse, rounded sheaves, spear-like, soft or metallic leaves.”
His friend, Novoa, who Neruda likens to St. Christopher (patron saint of travellers) gathered wild plants. “He praised the secret ties, known only to him, between bodily health and the natural gifts of the earth.”
Neruda’s mind settled. Knowing what lay beneath him he could finally sleep, “protected by the fragrance of those guardian herbs.”
Pablo Neruda lived in Chile, Asia, and Europe. While in Madrid, during the Siege of Madrid (1936 – 1939), Pablo Neruda’s house was raided:
“My masks were gone … Masks collected in Siam, Bali, Sumatra, the Malay Archipelago, Bandung … Gilded, ashen, tomato-red, with silver eyebrows, blue, demonic eyebrows, lost in thought, my masks had been my sole keepsakes from the Orient I had gone to alone that first time, which had received me with it odor of tea, dung, opium, sweat, the intensest jasmine, frangipani, fruit rotting in the streets … Those masks, a reminder of the purest dances, of the dancing before the temple …”
“Female eroticism is diffuse, not localised in the genitals but distributed throughout the body, mind, and senses. It is tactile and auditory, linked to smell, skin, and contact; arousal is often more subjective than physical, and desire arises on a lattice of emotion.”