Prologue: The more Grenouille had become accustomed to purer air, the more sensitive he was to human odour, which suddenly, quite unexpectedly, would come floating by in the night, ghastly as the stench of manure, betraying the presence of some shepherd’s hut or charcoal burner’s cottage or thieves’ den. And then he would flee further, increasingly sensitive to the increasingly infrequent smell of humankind. Thus his nose led him to ever more remote regions of the country, ever further from human beings, driving him on ever more insistently towards the magnetic pole of the greatest possible solitude.
Chapter 25: (So, What do you DO all day?)
He spent the next few days settling in on the mountain – for he had made up his mind that he would not be leaving this blessed region all that soon. First he sniffed around for water and in a crevasse a little below the top found it running across the rock in a thin film. It was not much, but if he patiently licked at it for an hour, he could quench his daily need for liquids. He also found nourishment in the form of small salamanders and ring snakes; he pinched off their heads, then devoured them whole. He also ate dry lichen and grass and mossberries. Such a diet, although totally unacceptable by bourgeois standards, did not disgust him in the least. In the past weeks and months, he had no longer fed himself with food processed by human hands – bread, sausage, cheese – but instead, whenever he felt hungry, had wolfed down anything vaguely edible that had crossed his path. He was anything but a gourmet. He had no use for sensual gratification, unless that gratification consisted of pure incorporeal odours. He had no use for creature comforts either, and would have been quite content to set up camp on bare stone. But he found something better.
Near his watering spot he discovered a natural tunnel leading back into the mountain by many twists and turns, until after a hundred feet or so it came to an end in a rock slide. The back of the tunnel was so narrow that his shoulders touched the rock and so low that he could walk only hunched down. But he could sit, and if he curled up, could even lie down. This completely satisfied his requirements for comfort. For the spot had incalculable advantages. At the end of the tunnel it was pitch-black night even during the day, it was deathly quiet, and the air he breathed was moist, salty, cool. Grenouille could smell at once that no living creature had ever entered the place. As he took possession of it, he was overcome by a sense of something like sacred awe. He carefully spread his horse-blanket on the ground as if dressing an altar and lay down on it. He felt blessedly wonderful. He was lying a hundred and fifty feet below the earth, inside the loneliest mountain in France – as if in his own grave. Never in his life had he felt so secure, certainly not in his mother’s belly. The world could go up in flames out there, but here he would not even notice it. He began to cry softly. He did not know whom to thank for such good fortune.
In the days that followed he went into the open only to lick at his watering spot, quickly to relieve himself of his urine and excrement, and to hunt lizards and snakes. They were easy to bag at night when they retreated under flat stones or into little holes where he could trace them with his nose.
He climbed back up to the peak a few more times during the first weeks to sniff out the horizon. But soon that had become more a wearisome habit than a necessity, for he had not once scented the least threat. And so he finally gave up these excursions and concerned himself only with getting back into his crypt as quickly as possible once he had taken care of the most basic chores necessary for simple survival. For here, inside the crypt, was where he truly lived. Which is to say, for well over twenty hours a day in total darkness and in total silence and in total immobility, he sat on his horse blanket at the end of the stony corridor, his back resting on the rock slide, his shoulders wedged between the rocks, and enjoyed himself.
We are familiar with people who seek out solitude: penitents, failures, saints or prophets. They retreat to deserts, preferably, where they live on locusts and honey. Others, however, live in caves or cells or remote islands; some – more spectacularly – squat in cages mounted high atop poles swaying in the breeze. They do this to be nearer to God. Their solitude is a self-mortification by which they do penance. They act in the belief that they are living a life pleasing to God. Or they wait months, years, for their solitude to be broken by some divine message that they hope then speedily to broadcast among mankind.
Grenouille’s case was nothing of the sort. There was not the least notion of God in his head. He was not doing penance nor waiting for some supernatural inspiration. He had withdrawn solely for his own personal pleasure, only to be nearer to himself. No longer distracted by anything external, he basked in his own existence and found it splendid. He lay in his stony crypt like his own corpse, hardly breathing, his heart hardly beating – and yet lived as intensively and dissolutely as ever a rake had lived in the world outside.