Short Story Review – Mathias Énard – The Perfume of the Desert (trans. Charlotte Mandell)

The warmth of desert evening hangs heavy in Mathias Énard’s The Perfume of the Desert (trans. Charlotte Mandell).  It reads very physical – words like ‘sticky’ ‘waft’ ‘jasmine’ ‘trembled’.  The world is alive for Adrian and Salma, two young lovers, or soon-to-be-lovers, who relax, sun-drenched and smell-drenched, in an oasis as the sun sets.

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.

Adrian is a touch too educated, it seems, cerebrally attracted to the exoticism of the desert, of the concept of the oasis rather than the place itself, as though he decided to come here because of something he read, not something he felt.  Salma wants to luxuriate in the smells and sights and sounds, while Adrian, nervous, tells a story about Theodosius the Myroblite.  She agrees to listen, lies back, closes her eyes, and lets the words fall over her.  It matters to him, but less to her, exactly what he is saying.

The Perfume of the Desert is a sensual story.  It made me want to eat, to walk at dusk with my wife, to smell food cooking, to have sex.  It’s a story concerned with place without explicitly locating itself geographically – this is a dream or a mirage, the kind of hours a tourist hopes to experience as they browse through brochures or websites online.

Insects throb, we are told.  The sky is endless.  Adrian’s story melts across the paragraphs, lulling Salma to a satisfied sleep.  Sexually satisfied?  We aren’t sure, but possibly.  Breasts, sweat, naked thighs, liquid skin – the eroticism is clear.  Adrian, though described as pompous, has coaxed Salma into succumbing to the gentle caress of his words, his story.

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…

The story is located fuzzily in time.  It’s most clearly set at noon, but there are references to the evening, to the afternoon, to the morning.  Time, it seems, blends together at the oasis, and the important part of life becomes what can be touched and smelled and felt and tasted.  Concrete details of thought or intellect are avoided while the skyline, the air, are detailed with close to lascivious dedication.

Adrian’s story of Theodosius blurs into the text, too, reading as skippable for the eye until the fourth to last paragraph of The Perfume of the Desert, when Adrian himself submits and turns his story away from the cerebral and positions it clearly within the physical realm.  Salma, here, relaxes fully and falls asleep, and the flies buzz on.

The Perfume of the Desert is a short story by French writer Mathias Énard, and was translated by Charlotte Mandell.  You can read the story online at Liquides Imaginaires.

Author Mathias Énard
Title The Perfume of the Desert
Translator Charlotte Mandell (Twitter)
Nationality French
Publisher Liquides Imaginaires

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.


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