“The Master of Scents” * Fiction * By Vincent Ravalec * Translated by Wendeline A. Hardenberg

He liked to think that wherever he happened to go, he got into people’s heads. He wormed his way inside them, influenced them, guided the moments he joined—that’s how he understood his purpose, his role here and there: as a joint venture—as surely as a ray of sunlight illuminates a day or the rain dampens your hair. Few knew him directly or had access to him, and yet many had encountered him. He was the Master of Scents. He ruled over them, classified them, harnessed them, recombined them, invented them, and above all took care of their distribution.

Scent goes hand in hand with sense of smell. And the sense of smell is a major one. The closest to the brain, along with hearing. The first to form during embryogenesis. Thanks to the sense of smell, the world is defined by the decoding of molecules or by combinations of volatile molecules making up what we call a perfume. Picked up by keen receptors, these sensations are organized into a gigantic data bank the brain just has to dip into. Therefore, for each person, perfumes become pleasant or unpleasant according to a mixture of collective memory and personal experience. They subtly and invisibly accompany us throughout our existence. They’re actively involved in our world, and as the world changes, perfumes evolve along with our cultural transformations.

But was this change going in the right direction?

He was the Master of Scents, and humans stank. Such was his lot.

They stank from the beginning when they were half-ape. Then they stank when they had begun to civilize themselves. They still stank now that the benefits of modernity had finished spreading around the globe, and despite his repeated efforts.

For he had had to deal with this disagreeable parameter: that excrement end up smelling like a rose.

The Brands cared about it a lot. Because—which also needed to specified—it was the Brands that were calling the shots. It was the Brands that had sent him on this mission to the humans.

All in all, he was just their employee.

Which didn’t bother him in the slightest, by the way. Whatever the context, the challenge was interesting.

He had his own Label, and the Brands called on him. Thus, he was present in perfumes and cosmetics, of course, but also food-processing, textiles, papermaking, publishing, leisure activities, catering, sales, hospitals, pharmaceuticals, and many other areas as well.

He was omnipresent, vying in inventiveness to overcome stench.

You could imagine him surrounded by a pleasant, enchanting cloud; it was not so. He washed with a soap of his own composition, whose formula changed regularly, allowing for the most neutral body odor possible. Fragrances had to be able to come stick to him with confidence.

Of course, he had read Süskind’s book and seen the film made from Perfume, but he didn’t recognize himself in that devious, degenerate creature with an overdeveloped gift, even if the principle was the same.

His task—at least, this is how it seemed to him—was altruistic. The idea of globalization, which the Brands worked toward relentlessly, necessarily led to that of a brotherhood. In a great olfactory union, let us breathe, my brothers and sisters, the same scents! For the Brands, that meant better management of the consumer. For him, a difficult challenge… From one part of the Earth to another, the cultural differences were immense. Not to mention a terrifying greed that drove humans to perpetually devour. After the people dressed in rags smelling of filth came armies of the obese stinking of rancid sweat.

Several strategies had been implemented.

First a run-of-the-mill screen, present in a basic substance: soap, household cleaning products, deodorants. The trouble was that the problem was so profound that the first attempts hadn’t been very conclusive. There were so many viruses, different bacteria, that the initial concern had been the eradication of parasites. The first generations, therefore, weren’t great. The end of the 20th century had been vaporized in bleach smells, cheap natural imitations, pine-scented car air fresheners. But it was clear that this was not the right direction. Furthermore, the Brands must have become aware of the stakes because numerous branches of Industry had turned to him.

“Smell, for Christ’s sake, Smell, that’s the key!” hammered the product managers.

Think about Proust’s madeleine. That literary cookie plays on the emotions tucked away in the deepest part of our unconscious. One of his first successes had been the croissant shop. The smell of brioche coming out of the oven and spreading along the sidewalks. Nobody, when he’d conceived of it, would have imagined that this delicious scent, which made customers come back salivating, was nothing but trickery, and the proffered pastry just an industrial trompe-l’œil. Next had come the fabulous taste of cheese melted onto hamburgers. That was the moment he’d understood that the Brands had drifted, that they were no longer driven by their original Missions: allowing for the evolution and exaltation of the Beautiful in an equitable system of exchange, but that the Minds running them had succumbed to human greed. That said, he hadn’t developed any discomfort from it. The world of scents was below that of emotions, they induced them, revived them, played with them, but were not governed by them. Certainly, a smell could produce an emotion that itself produced a smell, but in the areas where his capacity for thought operated, there was no room for feelings. Imperturbable, he’d carried on with his task. It was obvious that the human psyche continually secreted a stench it was practically impossible to fight against. Thus, he had worked on the concept of a “protected island.” Human thoughts were crisscrossed with sinister things. Their actions were marred by an incomprehensible aggression. Their buildings generated “malodorousness.” Intoxicating little enclaves had to be created here and there where they could go relax. Which was its own art! There were isolated islands, diffuse islands, and scattered islands. The isolated islands, for example, saw a strong concentration of perfume placed in the middle of the stench. He’d tested one, recently: the smell of a bouquet at the shop window of a florist stranded in a sinister working-class suburb where chemical fumes saturated the air with their fetid breath. The shop’s sales revenue had quadrupled in a few months. People now came there to find refuge. Diffuse islands were more complicated. They settled in the “background air,” and although barely perceptible, allowed the nose to pick up an enchanted moment at times. They were in high demand for public places with low budgets. It was a stopgap, of course, but permitted this or that place to claim an “attempt at non-stench.” As for the scattered islands, they were an idea that had first come to him while working for luxury brands, when he’d installed different scents according to the shelf, thereby instituting a veritable olfactory treasure hunt. The difficulty with the nose was that it short-circuited very quickly. Once the receptors were saturated, it was hard to make it smell something; you had to establish neutral ranges so as to better rebound on another offer. The Master had very quickly extended this concept to entire neighborhoods by leaning on the diversity of his clients. Entire sections of certain cities, all over the world, had become these fragrant treasure hunts, without anyone knowing: the scent of jeans here, a book smelling like your childhood glue, an exotic scent in a restaurant, a parking lot with whiffs of cinnamon, dishes in a promoted restaurant, perfumes on women’s bodies, even the air at subway entrances, slightly modified, all that was secreting into Joe Six-Pack’s mind a charming network supposed to brighten up his day.

Cheer him up, make him happier, and if possible, pull him upward. “From this stench we will make a festival of olfactory flavors, my dear friends”—no piglets running after their slop of vile hamburgers and stale croissants. He may not have been subject to emotions, but there was still a dedication to his primary mission. The Brands had gone insane; he was going to have to report it…

*Note: “The Master of Scents” is from Vincent Ravalec’s 2009 collection Nouvelles du monde entier II, translated from the French by Wendeline A. Hardenberg. Other stories from the same collection have previously appeared in Asymptote and Tupelo Quarterly.

—About the Author—

Vincent Ravalec (b. 1962) is a well-known contemporary French writer of avant-garde novels, short stories, poems, and pop songs, as well as a pioneer of virtual reality cinema. He stopped his formal schooling at the age of fourteen and worked as an apprentice carpenter and assistant movie producer before beginning to write in the early 1990s. He has since been prolific in a wide variety of media in France. An edition of his complete short stories was published by Au Diable Vauvert in 2020. He lives in Paris.


—About the Translator—

Wendeline A. Hardenberg (b. 1983) is a faculty librarian at Southern Connecticut State University who pursues literary translation as part of her creative activity. Her translations have been published by or are forthcoming with AmazonCrossing, AsymptoteColumbia Journal, HarperCollins, One Sentence Poems, Orison Books, Tupelo Quarterly, Twirl Books, and others. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut.