The Scent of Bliss
Publisher: Kwela Books
Jean Henri Fabre, the French entomologist who died in 1915, had the rare gift of being able to write both scientifically and poetically about the creatures which he researched. His study Social Life in the Insect World opens with the following passage:
Fame is the daughter of Legend. In the world of creatures, as in the world of men, the story precedes and outlives history. There are many instances of the fact that if an insect attracts our attention for this reason or that, it is given a place in those legends of the people whose last care is truth.
Writing here about the fable of The Ant and the Cigale (better known as the Ant and the Grasshopper), Fabre touches on a point of particular relevance: the interest which we as humans take in the lives of insects – for their attraction lies not so much in their individual characteristics, but rather in the fact that we witness in them reflections of our own lives, our own flaws and idiosyncrasies. We have only to take a cursory glance at literature in order to realise how the anthropomorphising of insects has infiltrated our general consciousness – from the ancient Greek fables of Aesop, through to Shakespeare, whose Gloucester in King Lear comments on the injustice of mortality: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;/ They kill us for their sport.” More recently, AS Byatt’s Morpho Eugenia (the first novella in her book Angels and Insects) reveals a shocking and disconcerting set of relationships, all of which are played out against the backdrop of the actions of garden insects. However, the text I favour above all others is Virginia Woolf’s short essay “The Death of the Moth”. In this essay Woolf observes a moth which has flown into her room:
One was, indeed, conscious of a queer feeling of pity for him. The possibilities of pleasure seemed that morning so enormous and various that to have only a moth’s part in life … appeared a hard fate. … He flew vigorously to one corner of his compartment, and, after waiting there a second, flew across to the other. What remained but for him to fly to a third corner and then to a fourth? That was all he could do, in spite of the size of the downs, the width of the sky, the far-off smoke of houses, and the romantic voice, now and then, of a steamer out at sea.
After a time the moth stops flying about, and Woolf realises that it is dying. In watching its death she comes to consider the strangeness of life, how separate we are from it, for “one is apt to forget all about life, seeing it humped and bossed and garnished and cumbered so that it has to move with the greatest circumspection and dignity.” Yet, once the moth has died, it is no longer life alone which is strange. Now death holds that similar foreign quality. But it is that very aspect, the strangeness, the separateness, of death which binds us; for creatures and humans alike must all face it eventually.
At this point you may well be asking, what is all of this talk about insects and moths leading up to? Let me explain. Recently I was given Nthikeng Mohlele’s debut novella, The Scent of Bliss, to read. It is an unusual book that centres on the life of Q, an orphaned boy living in fictional Lumumbaville. His life seems to consist of one disappointment and failed relationship after the next, most notably his brief period spent with Bernice, who disappears after having informed him that she is pregnant. Q’s existence lacks any sense of hope or joy, and no matter what he attempts, there is always a deep and melancholy void in his life. In order to “fill the vacuum (unemployment, a missing lover)”, Q begins to cherish an unusual pastime. He spends whole days capturing insects at the Lumumbaville Dam, and in the evenings he removes the wings from his captives. These mutilated creatures then wander around his apartment, where they are attacked by ants. Q makes sketches of them in various stages of decay and, placing them in glass jars, watches with interest as they decompose. But the insects fail to fill the void, serving only to reinforce the emptiness and loneliness of his miserable life. After a series of self-destructive events, Q falls dangerously ill and an acquaintance of his (a rather random one), Matron Engelbrecht, moves into his apartment to take care of him. Divorced and middle-aged, she is depressed by her ex-husband’s happy life with his new wife and their young daughter. When the matron finds Q’s sketches of the insects, she “battles to string together some coherent vision of what hunting these butterflies was supposed to achieve”. Yet, it seems that the same sense of belonging which Q hoped to achieve through his interactions with his insects is what the matron is attempting to achieve through caring for Q. She has collected Q, a damaged individual, and he is placed in an enclosed area where she watches him slowly decay. The futile flitting from corner to corner of Virginia Woolf’s moth, which ended in its inevitable death, is echoed here, in the fruitless actions of Q to make something of his life.
Moving on now from insects, I should like to address the novella itself. The Scent of Bliss is certainly an unusual read, and that unusual quality is promising and enjoyable for the first 80 or so pages, despite the melancholy subject matter. The writing is good, the characters are appealing; numerous themes are touched on which would have been very interesting and powerful if pursued further, such as the political climate, and Q’s dreams about language (“a language beyond an actual record”). Sadly, the last third of the book loses all focus and becomes confused. Moreover, it is written rather poorly in comparison with the rest of the novella. It is almost as though the author got bored and simply wanted to finish writing. This is a decided pity, for it is apparent that Mohlele is intelligent and educated, someone who thinks and feels deeply. He writes well, but to write well, to have the ability to place words together so that they sound good, is not enough. It is what those words add up to that matters, and in this case, I fear, the words do not add up to enough.