:: Article

The nasal symphony of Jean-Baptiste del Amo’s Animalia

By Daniel Marc Janes.

Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, Animalia, translated by Frank Wynne (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019)

Les Liquides Imaginaires, founded in France in 2012, might be the world’s most literary perfume brand. It is certainly among the most eccentric. To its founder, Philippe Di Méo, its aim is no less than to restore fragrance to its origins in mythology and ritual; to move beyond mere cosmetics and endow perfume with a ‘narrative spirit’. Like novel series, it releases its scents in thematic trilogies: on holy water, say, or trees. One of the chief preoccupations of its founders is how scent can be translated into different forms of artistic expression, an idea that the brand explored in a film and dance collaboration set to Charles Baudelaire’s poem ‘Élévation’.

One could easily dismiss this as puffery, the usual eyes-glaze-over marketing guff grafted onto a luxury product. But its founders are serious about scent, and to advance their philosophy they have called on their own Perfumier Laureate: award-winning novelist Jean-Baptiste Del Amo. ‘I wanted to show that the beauty of fragrance can also reside in the realm of strangeness, darkness, depth,’ said Di Méo in an interview. ‘This is for example why I appealed to author Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, because the dark romanticism that animates his work seemed in tune with the spirit of my brand.’ A dedicated feature on the perfume house’s website anoints Del Amo as ‘a master of the olfactory landscape’. ‘Is he a nose disguised as a writer or a Baudelaire reborn as a master perfumer?’ it asks. The ensuing interview canvasses Del Amo on his most memorable odours (decaying flesh), his perfume preferences (he prefers ‘baffling’ perfumes to ones more obviously appealing) and his thoughts on the ‘olfactory identity’ of different cities (he singles out Havana and Kyoto).

Del Amo, born in 1981, is one of France’s most decorated young novelists. His 2008 Une éducation libertine, about a penniless nineteen-year-old thrust from a Breton pig farm to the squalid Paris of Louis XV, won the Prix Goncourt for best first novel; 2013’s Pornographia, about a gay man’s delirious nocturnal escapade through an unnamed tropical city, won the Prix Sade in honour of the debauched Marquis. These richly sensory novels show his keen nose in action: in the former, Paris is France’s « nombril crasseux et puant » (‘filthy and stinking navel’); in the latter, the city abounds with « l’odeur de sexe crasseux, de bois piqué, de fruit talé, d’urine rance, de sueur tropicale » (‘the smell of filthy sex, worm-eaten wood, bruised fruit, rancid urine and tropical sweat’). This nasal symphony reaches a crescendo in his wonderful—and utterly merciless—2016 novel Règne animal, which charts five generations of a Gascon pig-farming family between 1898 and 1981. The winner of a host of French awards including the Prix du Livre Inter, Règne animal—thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions and the vivid translation of Frank Wynne—is the first of Del Amo’s works to appear in English, and an intoxicating introduction to the author’s literature of stink.

While the French title literally translates as Animal Kingdom, the English title is Animalia, perhaps to distinguish it from the dreary Australian gangster film of the same name. However, the Latinate Animalia feels very appropriate. It is more taxonomic, and Del Amo’s novel is a taxonomy of sorts: of smell, yes, but also of cruelty and of historical change. Academic and writer Christine Marcandier imagined Animalia with a Balzacian subtitle (Grandeur et décadence d’une exploitation agricole) and a Zolian one (Histoire naturelle et sociale d’une famille): these give a sense of the novel’s formidable scope.

Fortunately there is no question, as Henry James said of Balzac, of the historian overwhelming the novelist: Del Amo’s focus on the family is relentless, and we only witness historical changes in so far as they impinge on the central clan. In the first half of the book, set between 1898 and 1917, this family consists of the child Eléonore; her emaciated, dying father and the cruel mother Del Amo refers to as ‘the genetrix’; and their distant cousin Marcel, who takes the father’s place and later fights in the Great War. In the second half, set in 1981, these are an unruly bunch consisting of Eléonore again, now the wizened matriarch; her authoritarian, resentful son Henri, whose iron grip on the farm is loosened by a secret cancer he is too proud to treat; Henri’s sons, the broken man-husks Serge, alcoholic and aggressive, and Joël, a closet homosexual; Serge’s bed-ridden, manic depressive wife Catherine; and Serge and Catherine’s two children, the autistic, mute Jérôme and his older sister, Julie Marie, with whom he is fixated.

If Del Amo the historian does not overwhelm Del Amo the novelist, then Del Amo the butcher might. If you feel like a particularly grim game of roulette, open the book at random and chances are you will find a sentence like this, on the late father’s putrefying body: ‘In the faecal magma of the abdomen, a silent army emerges. The commensal bacteria toil, proliferate and transform the guts into a primordial sludge.’ (p.83) Or this, on a miscarrying sow: ‘A purulent whitish discharge trickles from her vulva, down her hocks, forming a pool on the concrete floor in which the aborted foetuses lie, small sacs of pink, blood-smeared skin with undeveloped limbs.’ (p.317)

This physicality is unrelenting. Del Amo’s Puy-Larroque—the novel’s fictional village in the southwestern département of Gers—spews with pig excrement, rat urine, stagnant water and bloated innards. And yet, for all their foulness, these passages never overpower the story: they are the story. Del Amo describes the piggery as ‘the cradle of [the family’s] barbarism and of their whole world’. It is the story of an infected society, of the transmission of cruelty from generation to generation; human, animal, land bound in corruption and woundedness. Here the conjuring of scent is not merely an incidental detail: it is central to Del Amo’s purpose. By a wide margin, Animalia evokes smell more profoundly than any other sense. In a novel of 410 pages, I underlined 158 passages describing smells, some of which are quite lengthy, and this does not account for smell-adjacent words such as ‘acrid’, ‘putrid’ and ‘rotting’.

Early on in the book, the young Eléonore watches her father guiding a ploughshare dragged by two oxen. She watches him ‘stop the yoke, bend down and pick up a glistening clod of earth, bring it to his nose and inhale the scent’, a spiritual communion between man and land. The father is our olfactory stand-in; Del Amo is constantly inviting us to inhale. He loves to mix his scents. In the farmhouse, the father’s tobacco mingles with ‘the perfumes of damp clay sodden by the rains’. In the village square, the methane of the belching cows ‘mingles with the smells of dough and of bread baking in the boulangerie’. As the father lays dying, he is confined to a claustrophobic room that

reeks of decay and sour sweat, of the fumes of hooch and of soup served to warm people up, of the breath that mouths of rotting teeth and ulcerous stomachs have been spewing all day, endlessly rebreathing the same musty air that mists the windowpanes.

As war comes, so does the smell of death. The depleted village no longer has a knackers’ yard, so the carcass of a dead mare is left to rot; when it is finally hauled away, it leaves ‘a trail of black, putrid slime crawling with vermin’. Hospital wards ‘reek of ether, tobacco and necrosis’. In an extraordinary sequence, the farm’s animals are commandeered to feed the troops, rounded up at a railyard and herded mindlessly into wagons to be transported a few kilometres from the Front; there, they are penned into a barbed-wire enclosures, then slaughtered and dismembered in butchery tents. It is an orgy of feculence and cruelty, a herald of the war—the century—to come. Witness the ‘mingled stenches of an abattoir, a fetid byre and a charnel house’; the gnats and horseflies that swarm, ‘like the fourth plague of Egypt’, over the diseased livestock, ‘around open wounds, gorging on sweat, on blood, on dung’; the stray dogs with blood-flecked muzzles fighting over entrails that are ‘doused with petrol and torched, giving off the charred smell of a funeral pyre’. The horror is in the miasma.

 Animalia is not just about barbarism. It is also about time. Smells become a vector of historical change. When Marcel returns from the war, with a sewn-up eye socket and ruined impression of a face, his experience is contained within his smell: ‘The smell of straw, of animals and sweat has given way to that of alcohol and ether, of morphine and oil of camphor, of stale tobacco and hooch.’ This game of olfactory compare and contrast can be most profitably played between the book’s two halves, when the peasant farmland of 1914 gives way to the intensive mechanized operation of 1981. Before, the fields ‘smell of hay, wild garlic, broom and warm stones’; now, the brothers breathe ‘shallow gulps of ammoniacal emanations’ and ‘the acrid stench of Cresyl [a disinfectant] and slurry’.

With time comes memory. Buried within the cruelty is a more elegiac novel about the irretrievable past. Characters vainly attempt to keep memories alive, try to divine odeurs perdues. When the men of the village go off to the Great War, superstitious residents make shrouds of suits that ‘for a few hours, perhaps a few days’ retain the smell of the departed man. Eléonore goes out looking for Marcel’s smell amid the smell of the animals; she latches on to passing men and inhales their scent, hoping to connect it to ‘a face that is already distant, vague, tenuous’. When Serge returns home, smelling of booze, he comes across his sister-in-law, Gabrielle. She reminds him of his wife before she became ill, so he buries his face in her neck and inhales, ‘hoping to smell Catherine, not as she is today, a sickly, medicinal smell, but the Catherine of old, fragrant and intoxicating’.

This connection, between smell and memory, works both ways. There aren’t just passing smells that evade recapture; there are ineradicable smells that invoke an atavistic, ancestral memory. All members of the sprawling, second-half household, from the elderly Eléonore to the twins Jérôme and Julie-Marie, are described as carrying on them a vomit-like smell that they can no longer smell themselves, ‘embedded in their clothes, their sinuses, their hair’. ‘Over the generations, they have acquired this ability to produce and exude the smell of pigs, to naturally smell of pig.’ As Serge contemplates this odour, it becomes something transcendent and immense, an object of volcanic, elemental myth:

Sometimes, he forgets this smell. For long periods, it disappears. Then he rediscovers it, often in his dreams—it comes with the shriek, the wail of a body of animals, a single, convulsive, menacing mass, hidden from view, brooding in limbo, in the deep shadows—just as those who lose their sight late in life see primitive images in their dreams. When it appears in his dreams, he instantly recognises it and catches in his throat, this stench that rises from buried worlds as through a rip in the earth, in memory, in time: a smell of mire, of silt, of Archaean lava, of fossil layers, the foul smell of sickly, putrid wombs.

Asked whether perfume returns us to visceral sensations or offers us spiritual transcendence, Del Amo says: ‘Both.’ He adds: ‘I am keenly interested in perfumes that use specks of emotions and memories in order to transcend them, to bring them elsewhere, to reshape them.’ For the author, the power of smell is bound up with the memory of childhood; he relates this to his own nasally satisfying upbringing in Cugnaux, a small village on the outskirts of Toulouse. ‘Most of my childhood memories are linked to smell. The smell is a way of reaching that time of my life, which is irremediably lost.’ Animalia dedicates considerable time to this notion: indeed, many of its most fragrant passages are refracted through its two children, Eléonore and, in particular, Jérôme, who roams freely through le paysage gersois, breathing in the ‘scent of grasses bowed by the dew’, the ‘musty tang of dungheaps behind farms’, the ‘acid perfume’ of a flower’s corolla. Not all of the smells are pleasurable—there is still fertilizer, diesel, the whiff of slurry—but through the prism of childhood they take on a vital quality: the quality of enchantment.

More than any other sense, evoking smell presents a linguistic challenge. Our ability to sniff out odours lags behind our capacity to articulate them, something John Locke observed in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

There is a great variety of smells, though we have but a few names for them; sweet, stinking, sour, rank, and musty are almost all the denominations we have for odours; though the smell of a violet and of musk, both called sweet, are as distinct as any two smells whatsoever.

This paucity is common to Indo-European languages. In French as in English, one is restricted to a small number of words; Del Amo’s core lexicon consists primarily of ‘odeur’, ‘parfum’ and ‘puanteur’ and to a lesser extent ‘effluve’ and ‘remugle’. When you combine these limited tools with the differences between English and French, one appreciates all the more Frank Wynne’s feat: it is hard enough translating smells into language, let alone between languages.

Euan Cameron, who along with Wynne is Patrick Modiano’s UK translator, previously described the challenges of translating Philippe Claudel’s ‘olfactory memoir’ Parfums: A Catalogue of Remembered Smells. French, he said, is better equipped to describe the evanescent and ethereal; English vocabulary may be wider, but it is more specific and direct. The word ‘parfum’ is a case in point. It has several meanings: perfume; more generally, an agreeable scent; it also means flavour. It does not directly correspond with ‘aroma’, ‘scent’ or ‘fragrance’. The word ‘odeur’ is another. In French, it is neutral; in English, it has unpleasant connotations. Wynne deftly navigates this dense fog of fume. As the father lies dying on the bed, « l’odeur putride de l’agonie » becomes ‘the putrid stench of death’, stronger than merely ‘putrid smell’; when they sit down around him, « attablés dans le parfum acide » that he emits, they ‘sit down to eat in the acidic miasma’. As Joël, Henri and Serge observe the squelchy hell of the mating pigs, « l’odeur de ces fluides répandus » (the smell of these spilled fluids) becomes the agreeably alliterative ‘acrid smell of spilled secretions’.

In Joris-Karl Huysmans’ breviary of decadence À rebours, the reclusive aesthete Des Esseintes retreats into a life of experimental sensualism, manufacturing from perfumes entire worlds. When Del Amo mixes his smellscapes, he situates himself in this proud French olfactory tradition—of Huysmans; of Colette, who not only embraced the title of ‘olfactory novelist’ but went one further and opened her own beauty salon; and, of course, of Marcel Proust. It wasn’t just the taste, after all, of the madeleine that the narrator of À la recherche du temps perdu found so incredibly evocative. ‘The smell and taste of things remain poised a long time like souls,’ goes that seminal passage, ‘ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment.’

The unique Gallic relationship to odour is charted in Alain Corbin’s 1982 The Foul and the Fragrant: Odour and the French Social Imagination. Between 1760 and 1880, argues Corbin, an adherent of the French historiographical tradition of l’histoire des mentalités, there was a rise in ‘olfactory vigilance’. Influenced by new theories of public health and urban planning, elites became less tolerant of strong odours in streets and courtyards. Via paving and ventilation, they deodorised public spaces; via the privy, they privatized the act of defecation. The masses, however, retained a ‘loyalty to filth’, while in fashionable circles this heightened sensitivity to personal odour led to the super-refinement encapsulated in À rebours. And yet, for all this newfound vigilance, progress in public health was uneven; the French were slow to embrace British innovations like mains drainage. Corbin puts this down to a fundamentally different cultural attitude:

The relative indifference shown by the French to cleanliness, their rejection of water, their long tolerance of strong bodily odours, and their continued privatisation of excrement and rubbish cannot be explained solely by a secret distrust of innovation, by relative poverty, or by slow urbanisation. It was the collective attitude towards the body, the organic functions, and the sensory messages that governed behaviour.

John Sutherland, surveying Corbin’s observations, argued that the English could never produce a novel like À rebours; the same could be said of Animalia, whose sustained sensory potency is largely alien to Anglophone writing. ‘Few men of great genius had exercised their parts in writing books upon the subjects of great noses,’ lamented Tristram Shandy; these words hold true today. It falls to the likes of Del Amo and Wynne to rouse in us a ‘loyalty to filth’, to teach us to read with the nose. ‘You gave me your mud and I turned it into gold,’ said Baudelaire to the city of Paris; Del Amo, working with the history-drenched soil of Gers, has been given mud and turned it into perfume.


Daniel Marc Janes is deputy editor of Review 31.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 27th, 2019.