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Книга Perfume. The story of a murderer. Содержание - Nineteen

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Slowly the kettle came to a boil. And after a while, the distillate started to flow out of the moor’s head’s third tap into a Florentine flask that Baldini had set below it-at first hesitantly, drop by drop, then in a threadlike stream. It looked rather unimpressive to begin with, like some thin, murky soup. Bit by bit, however-especially after the first flask had been replaced with a second and set aside to settle-the brew separated into two different liquids: below, the floral or herbal fluid; above, a thick floating layer of oil. If one carefully poured off the fluid-which had only the lightest aroma-through the lower spout of the Florentine flask, the pure oil was left behind-the essence, the heavily scented principle of the plant.

Grenouille was fascinated by the process. If ever anything in his life had kindled his enthusiasm— granted, not a visible enthusiasm but a hidden one, an excitement burning with a cold flame-then it was this procedure for using fire, water, steam, and a cunning apparatus to snatch the scented soul from matter. That scented soul, that ethereal oil, was in fact the best thing about matter, the only reason for his interest in it. The rest of the stupid stuff-the blossoms, leaves, rind, fruit, color, beauty, vitality, and all those other useless qualities-were of no concern to him. They were mere husk and ballast, to be disposed of.

From time to time, when the distillate had grown watery and clear, they took the alembic from the fire, opened it, and shook out the cooked muck. It looked as flabby and pale as soggy straw, like the bleached bones of little birds, like vegetables that had been boiled too long, insipid and stringy, pulpy, hardly still recognizable for what it was, disgustingly cadaverous, and almost totally robbed of its own odor. They threw it out the window into the river. Then they fed the alembic with new, fresh plants, poured in more water, and set it back on the hearth. And once again the kettle began to simmer, and again the lifeblood of the plants dripped into the Florentine flask. This often went on all night long. Baldini watched the hearth, Grenouille kept an eye on the flasks; there was nothing else to do while waiting for the next batch.

They sat on footstools by the fire, under the spell of the rotund flacon-both spellbound, if for very different reasons. Baldini enjoyed the blaze of the fire and the flickering red of the flames and the copper, he loved the crackling of the burning wood, the gurgle of the alembic, for it was like the old days. You could lose yourself in it! He fetched a bottle of wine from the shop, for the heat made him thirsty, and drinking wine was like the old days too. And then he began to tell stories, from the old days, endless stories. About the War of the Spanish Succession, when his own participation against the Austrians had had a decisive influence on the outcome; about the Camisards, together with whom he had haunted the Cevennes; about the daughter of a Huguenot in the Esterel, who, intoxicated by the scent of lavender, had complied with his wishes; about a forest fire that he had damn near started and which would then have probably set the entire Provence ablaze, as sure as there was a heaven and hell, for a biting mistral had been blowing; and over and over he told about distilling out in the open fields, at night, by moonlight, accompanied by wine and the screech of cicadas, and about a lavender oil that he had created, one so refined and powerful that you could have weighed it out in silver; about his apprentice years in Genoa, about his journeyman years in the city of Grasse, where there were as many perfumers as shoemakers, some of them so rich they lived like princes, in magnificent houses with shaded gardens and terraces and wainscoted dining rooms where they feasted with porcelain and golden cutlery, and so on…

Such were the stories Baldini told while he drank his wine and his cheeks grew ruddy from the wine and the blazing fire and from his own enthusiastic story-telling. Grenouille, however, who sat back more in the shadows, did not listen to him at all. He did not care about old tales, he was interested in one thing only: this new process. He stared uninterruptedly at the tube at the top of the alembic out of which the distillate ran in a thin stream. And as he stared at it, he imagined that he himself was such an alembic, simmering away inside just like this one, out of which there likewise gushed a distillate, but a better, a newer, an unfamiliar distillate of those exquisite plants that he tended within him, that blossomed there, their bouquet unknown to anyone but himself, and that with their unique scent he could turn the world into a fragrant Garden of Eden, where life would be relatively bearable for him, olfactorily speaking. To be a giant alembic, flooding the whole world with a distillate of his own making, that was the daydream to which Grenouille gave himself up.

But while Baldini, inflamed by the wine, continued to tell ever more extravagant tales of the old days and got more and more tangled up in his uninhibited enthusiasms, Grenouille soon abandoned his bizarre fantasy. For the moment he banished from his thoughts the notion of a giant alembic, and instead he pondered how he might make use of his newly gained knowledge for more immediate goals.


IT WASN’T LONG before he had become a specialist in the field of distillation. He discovered-and his nose was of more use in the discovery than Baldini’s rules and regulations-that the heat of the fire played a significant role in the quality of the distillate. Every plant, every flower, every sort of wood, and every oil-yielding seed demanded a special procedure. Sometimes you had to build up the hottest head of steam, sometimes you just left it at a moderate boil, and some flowers yielded their best only if you let them steep over the lowest possible flame.

It was much the same with their preparation. Mint and lavender could be distilled by the bunch. Other things needed to be carefully culled, plucked, chopped, grated, crushed, or even made into pulp before they were placed in the copper kettle. Many things simply could not be distilled at all-which irritated Grenouille no end.

Having observed what a sure hand Grenouille had with the apparatus, Baldini had given him free rein with the alembic, and Grenouille had taken full advantage of that freedom. While still mixing perfumes and producing other scented and herbal products during the day, he occupied himself at night exclusively with the art of distillation. His plan was to create entirely new basic odors, and with them to produce at least some of the scents that he bore within him. At first he had some small successes. He succeeded in producing oils from nettles and from cress seeds, toilet water from the fresh bark of elderberry and from yew sprigs. These distillates were only barely similar to the odor of their ingredients, but they were at least interesting enough to be processed further. But there were also substances with which the procedure was a complete failure. Grenouille tried for instance to distill the odor of glass, the clayey, cool odor of smooth glass, something a normal human being cannot perceive at all. He got himself both window glass and bottle glass and tried working with it in large pieces, in fragments, in slivers, as dust-all without the least success. He distilled brass, porcelain, and leather, grain and gravel. He distilled plain dirt. Blood and wood and fresh fish. His own hair. By the end he was distilling plain water, water from the Seine, the distinctive odor of which seemed to him worth preserving. He believed that with the help of an alembic he could rob these materials of their characteristic odors, just as could be done with thyme, lavender, and caraway seeds. He did not know that distillation is nothing more than a process for separating complex substances into volatile and less volatile components and that it is only useful in the art of perfumery because the volatile essential oils of certain plants can be extracted from the rest, which have little or no scent. For substances lacking these essential oils, the distilling process is, of course, wholly pointless. For us moderns, educated in the natural sciences, that is immediately apparent. For Grenouille, however, this knowledge was won painfully after a long chain of disappointing experiments. For months on, end he sat at his alembic night after night and tried every way he could think to distill radically new scents, scents that had never existed on earth before in a concentrated form. But except for a few ridiculous plant oils, nothing came of it. From the immeasurably deep and fecund well of his imagination, he had pumped not a single drop of a real and fragrant essence, had been unable to realize a single atom of his olfactory preoccupations.

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