Madeleine Thien on Memory and the Evocative Smell of Eucalyptus

A Series on the Senses: Smell

Frieze considers the role of food – aesthetically, sensorially, politically, environmentally – in contemporary culture

Wolfgang Georgsdorf, ‘Smeller 2.0’, 2018, exhibition view, Gropius Bau, Berlin. Courtesy: Gropius Bau, Berlin; photograph: Matthias Völzke

Wolfgang Georgsdorf, ‘Smeller 2.0’, 2018, exhibition view, Gropius Bau, Berlin. Courtesy: Gropius Bau, Berlin; photograph: Matthias Völzke

Touch, taste, hearing, sight and smell – these are the five traditional senses. In this specially commissioned portfolio, five writers – Chloe Aridjis, Fernando A. Flores, Diana Hamilton, Alexandra Kleeman and Madeleine Thien – complicate our individual and shared experiences of these ‘outward wits’, as they were once known, in pieces of short fiction and non-fiction. They do not limit themselves to any one sense; instead, they draw on our ‘inward wits’, which the 16th-century British poet Stephen Hawes, in his ‘The Pastime of Pleasure’ (1509), identified as common sense, imagination, fantasy, instinct and memory.

In our medicine cabinet, my father kept a tall green bottle distinguished by its colourful blue and white Malaysian label. When I was sick or feeling sad, he would uncap this foreign bottle, shake out a few drops of transparent liquid, warm it in his hands and rub it on my stomach. The scent of the oil was an invisible refuge, a consolation, a world. As a child, I knew it only as the bottle. The foreign oil had been used to comfort me from the time I was very small, when my parents were not sure if I would live, and I stayed, for months, in hospital.

Years passed. When I was a teenager, my father fell into a severe depression. I occasionally went in search of that dusty bottle, uncapped it and felt returned to a memory. In our family of five, only my father and I cherished this bottle. The scent seemed to dull the pain lodged in my chest. When my father moved out, he took the tall green bottle with him. By then, it was mostly empty because, for many years, he’d had no money to return to Malaysia. The bottle contained oil of eucalyptus from his home in Sabah.

My parents named me Madeleine. They were guided by a tattered Calendar of the Saints that my father kept in a bedside drawer, and not by Proust’s famous – though surprisingly dry – cake-biscuit. In   À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time, 1906–22), young Marcel soaks a crumb of madeleine in a spoonful of tea. The sip he takes fills him with exquisite pleasure, a sensation he likens to the effects of love: ‘I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal.’ This experience of the madeleine dipped in tea becomes an unremembered state; year by year, it sinks further down into the chambers of memory.

Last year, in a small upstairs room at Berlin’s Gropius Bau, I sat facing a cross-section of tubes. For 15 minutes – in a time signature that felt like movement, like walking, like a dream – the tubes released smells. Some were distinctly unpleasant, some beautiful. I was taken into my own subjective, layered memories, towards unremembered states. Occasionally, they made me laugh or draw back, and also weep. There are so many smells we know but cannot name, as if names are, in the end, the fleeting thing. ‘The smell and taste of things,’ writes Proust, ‘remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest.’

The unforgettable show at Gropius Bau was ‘Smeller 2.0’ and the artist, Wolfgang Georgsdorf, calls these tubes ‘a smell organ’. Smell is minutely woven into our being. When we lose our sense of smell, we may be experiencing symptoms of depression; and when we are depressed, we often experience a loss of smell. To create his apparatus, Georgsdorf studied the nature of air, which is the canvas of his art. How can one arrange scents so that they unfold in time? How does one orchestrate air so that it reaches us, lives in a distinct moment, dissolves? When asked about his interest in smell, Georgsdorf spoke of a blank space on the map of the history of art: ‘In other words, it interests me because there is nothing.’

When my father was dying, I found the bottle of eucalyptus oil in his cupboard; it had been meticulously refilled over the years. Why had he carried this tall green bottle from Malaysia? Why did he refill the original bottle over and over again? My father, whose own father was murdered in 1945 and who grieved things he never spoke of, was a man of many silences. I brought the bottle with me to the hospital where I sat beside him, day after day. I warmed the oil on my hands and laid this warmth against his chest. A deep consolation, a refuge, peace. When language fails us, when eyes close, there are still other ways to speak. So many things I nearly remembered drew near, distinct, dissolving, held by the air.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 205 with the headline ‘An Unremembered State’.

Madeleine Thien is the author of four works of fiction. Her 2016 novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, about art and revolution in 20th-century China, won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governon-General's Literary Award for Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Women's Prize for Fiction and The Folio Prize. She is a professor of English at Brooklyn College, New York, USA.

Issue 205

First published in Issue 205

September 2019

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