“French Perfume” by Amir Tag Elsir [Why This Book Should Win]
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Najeebah Al-Ghadban. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
French Perfume by Amir Tag Elsir, translated from the Arabic by William M. Hutchins (Sudan, Antibookclub)
It may be only through humor that one can willingly enter the haze of Amir Tag Elsir’s French Perfume. The text—translated from Arabic by the renowned William M. Hutchins, and published by ANTIBOOKCLUB—tugs at the insides of anticipation until they are strewn across a table, staring back at you like doctored images of a woman you have never met but have just married.
The image is of Katia, a Frenchwoman, but mostly a name, who embodies promise and release for Ali Jarjar, a man who “from an early age [. . .] toughened himself by training his bladder’s urinary control, his lungs’ resistance to coughing, and his memory’s avoidance of vagaries.” A man with pride knotted in self-restraint. A man who incessantly dangles himself before the local women “who sold tea to the poor, women who were maids, and women who were immigrants.” Women he abandons, “enveloped in a warm dream and in the fantasy of a happy life.” Jilted, because like the cracks in the town walls of Gha’ib (or, “Nonexistent”) they are easy to overlook yet undeniably there. Women who, much like the ever-present squeaky doors of the neighborhood, denounce intimacy because “a door that opened quietly and smoothly was respected by no one.”
But Katia is a promise so intoxicating that men die writing poetry for her:
Beautiful Katia: where are you?
Where is desire for this melancholy flow
And where is the pure river of letters that will course through
your blood with love and affection?
Katia is the exception, who oils the doors of Gha’ib with the anticipation of her arrival:
She will make us famous in the whole world by documenting us in a video, she will send us the money necessary to develop the neighborhood and to bury its sewers and fill its potholes, she will care for our stray dogs and cats, she will ask some of us to migrate and live with her in Paris, and perhaps she will fall madly in love with one of us and ask him to marry her.
Katia is the Angel, who renames the stores and paints houses blue.
Katia Cadolet—the image and the undoing.
Hutchins’s translation of Elsir’s French Perfume elicits sense from absurdity. It is a book dominated by fragrance of passion so annihilating because of its very absence. Its scent becomes the promise for the physical, but ultimately lacks the body—leaving only notes of overpowering delusion and heady expectation. It inflames a slow burn of want for the need to touch the intangible. This is a text that deforms the mind as it pulls one into the rituals of preparing for passion—for there is nothing closer to skin than scent, and only at the loss of restraint does reason unravel.
Why should this book win? Because “it was the desperate hope of a man without any hopes.” And because, once, you too must have loved the image of a ghost.