Dan Alexe is a writer, filmmaker, linguist and traveller. He has published plays (The World as Glitz and Burden, with Luca Pițu, Opera Magna, 2012), short stories (Scent of a Bitter Redhead, Humanitas, 2014; In the Rabbi G. Point, Polirom, 2016), cultural essays (Dacopathy and Other Romanian Aberrations, Humanitas, 2015). His documentary films have won a number of major international awards. They include Ghazavat (1992, the first documentary movie ever made about Chechnya), Howling for God (1997, about life in the Sufi mystic brotherhoods), and Cabal in Kabul (2007, about today’s Afghanistan viewed through the enmity between Kabul’s last two Jews). Howling for God received the FIPRESCI Prize at the IDFA Festival in Amsterdam in 1998. Cabal in Kabul won the Nanook Prize at the Paris Ethnographic Film Festival in 2007 and the Grand Prize at the Sibiu Astra Festival in 2008, among others. Apart from his ludic, baroque prose and documentary films, Dan Alexe’s major interest remains language itself, the Logos.
Pefumed Panthers: Synopsis of the novel
The narrator and his lover, both Romanian, travel across Putin’s Russia from Moscow down the Volga to the Caspian Sea and then through Dagestan, Chechnya and Georgia to the Black Sea, following in the footsteps of Alexandre Dumas. The narrator is trying to make a documentary film that will reconstruct Dumas’s little-known journey through Russia and the Caucasus; his travelling companion Eva, a conceptual artist from Bucharest, brings along her uninhibited sexuality and avidity for every conceivable erotic experiment. Perfumed Panthers is a baroque road novel set against the geopolitical backdrop of Russia and the Caucasus, reeking of sex and death, and brimming with cultural, historical and ethnographic details. The novel takes us through Kalmykia of the Buddhist Mongols, it makes us smell the oily spells of the Caspian Sea, and it starkly depicts the atrocities committed by the pro-Moscow Grozny government against the Islamists of the Chechen mountains. In the end, the delicate fabric of the couple does not survive the ordeal of the journey, nor the rivers of alcohol that the narrator and his lover have to guzzle with their protectors from the Chechen mafia.
To fund my documentary in the footsteps of Alexandre Dumas through Russia and the Caucasus, my final hope remained the French film commission. When dealing with such a motely crew, you have to identify from the very beginning the most important person, the one who will make the final decision regardless of what the others might say. To my horror, that person proved to be one of those thin, arrogant Frenchwomen, in her forties, with freckles (oh, how right Ali had been in his obsession with freckled Parisian women!), and she even had sharp teeth, while her hair was trimmed straight, with a cowlick fringe. As we were in summer, she had kicked off her sandals and, under the table at which they had all complacently plonked themselves, I saw the silver rings on her toes. The hostility was mutual, I felt it from the start, and she didn’t conceal it.
The windows were wide open, Paris wafted a cyclone of hysteria at us from outside, arrogant smells and waltzing hirsute flies that buzzed around my head with multiple drawers of anxiety. The flies seemed to avoid the members of the commission, as if they themselves had organised that aerial ballet, the droning airborne assault, which was obviously devised to torture me. One of the executioners, the only one who was exhibiting a faint smile, looked like the late Pierre Bourdieu, which instantly discouraged me.
I sat sprawled on an uncomfortable chair in front of their table, while the barefoot skinny woman frowned as she leafed through the file that I had paid to have it bound and even sheathed in hard, transparent plastic. She negligently gazed at a few colour photographs, maps of Russia and the Caucasus. She read out a few lines, almost inaudibly. She examined me sternly. Pressing her lips into a white line, she asked:
“In the proposal, you give us a lot of exact dialogue, word for word. How do you know that the characters in the documentary will utter precisely these words? Are you going to force them to act, to read from a script? Do you intend to pay them? Or what?”
I politely feigned great surprise.
“Pay them? God forbid! It’s a documentary film, isn’t it? It wouldn’t be ethical. What you have there is simply a transcript of some of the conversations I had with the future characters, all of them real. I make this clear in the director’s statement and the synopsis. I’ve already travelled the whole route that Dumas took, I’ve done a lot of prospecting at my own expense, but now, obviously, I also need the support of an institution.”
“The structure of the documentary is solid and convincing, indeed,” she said in a dissatisfied voice. “But I can’t find anything that clarifies the artistic approach, nor, above all, the moral approach.”
“What do you mean by ‘moral approach’?” I asked, genuinely puzzled.
She flung the file on the table and slapped her palm on top of it. The other three members of the commission remained silent, expressionless, staring at me.
“For example, when you arrive in Kalmykia to visit that dictator . . .”
She clicked her fingers, trying to remember his name.
“Tyumen,” I said, helping her.
“Tyumen. Right. Well, you say that he will throw a huge party for you, for the film crew.”
“That’s what he did for Dumas,” I said, trying to mollify her. “All right, not him, not the present-day leader, but the Kalmyk prince of that time, of Dumas’s time: he held a feast for him that lasted for days, involving countless ceremonies and dozens of dishes. That’s the Kalmyk custom when it comes to distinguished guests. A Kalmyk feast is a highly important traditional event, of which Dumas gives a very good ethnographic description that would fit perfectly with the tone of the commentary and the aesthetic of the film.”
“Distinguished guests? The crew of a documentary film is supposed to be neutral, not to interfere with the local customs. Or to accept gifts in kind.”
She paused and I gave her a mellow smile.
“And then you want to use the following excerpt from Dumas’s diary as voiceover during the feast: ‘The physical appearance of the Kalmyks brought before my eyes the two most incontrovertible types of human ugliness: yellow skin, small, narrow eyes, splayed or almost absent noses, sparse beards, uncombed hair, proverbial filth; such was the sight that enchanted us.’”
She stopped reading, pressed her palms together as if in prayer, and stared at me sternly. She recited once more, with emphasis: “Les deux types les plus incontestés de la laideur humaine!”
“Yes, those are Dumas’s words,” I murmured. “‘The two most incontrovertible types of human hideousness.’ It’s a passage in his diary. That’s how he describes the Kalmyks. They’re Mongols, you know?”
And as she remained silent, I added, feeling miserable and abandoned, “Europe’s only Buddhist population.”
“You are engaging in a fascist discourse,” she grated grimly.
“Oh, hell,” I cursed in my mind, “this one really did study under Bourdieu. Or more likely all the members of the jury studied under him, and that one looking at me with a permanent grin on his face has ended up turning into a young and incomplete Bourdieu, through servile imitation.
“You know, the Kalmyks aren’t actually the cutest people on earth,” I ventured.
“Aha!” she exclaimed, satisfied at my having confirmed it for her.
“But the convention will be clear to the viewer from the very start,” I argued. “The use of excerpts from Dumas as the only commentary in the film—”
“Will provide the viewer with a fascist, racist, Eurocentric discourse,” she interrupted. “In any case, one fundamental thing is not at all clear in your proposal. Fun-da-men-tal,” she said, splitting it into separate syllables and annihilating me with her gaze.
I looked at the others, who sat in silent agreement, knowing in advance what she was going to say.
“Nowhere do you expose, nowhere do you explain the essential element of the entire construct: how are you going to film the enemy?”
“What enemy?” I stammered.
“The Kalmyk tyrant . . .”
She clicked her fingers again.
“Tyumen,” I reminded her.
“Tyumen, yes,” she said in irritation. “Little does his name matter. How are you going to film him? How are you going to film your enemy?”
The other three came suddenly to life, and Bourdieu took out a ballpoint, ready to take notes.
“How am I going to film him? You mean, am I going to put the camera on a tripod or use a shoulder mount or what?”
They sighed in exasperation and, looking at each other, swiftly came to a silent agreement. It was as if everything had suddenly become clear to them, and I was merely confirming what they already knew before luring me into a trap.
“Who said anything about the aesthetics of the shot? Who mentioned any tripod? You can film with a mobile phone, for all I care. Even with trembling hands, like yours now, which I see are shaking. Little does the visual aesthetic matter as long as the ideology of the film remains coherent. We are not interested in the frame, in the rectangle in which the image of your documentary will be inscribed, but in the ideological and narrative mechanism. Let me ask you again: how will you film your enemy? Because you can hardly convince us that a Kalmyk Buddhist dictator, kidnapped by aliens and obsessed with chess, who assassinates his opponents, as you specified in the script, is going to be your friend or that he should be presented as likeable to the viewer. Especially since feasts will be held in your honour . . .”
They fell silent, giving the false impression that they were offering me a final chance, although their decision seemed definitive. The one who looked like Bourdieu cleared his throat and panted sententiously:
“You know, up to now I was in slight disagreement with my colleague, in the sense that the narrative and visual mechanism you propose really does provide us with a new paradigm whereby we viewers might leave behind any armchair orientalism,or Western cultural complacency. But I was expecting a greater structural rigour on your part, especially because the project is so ambitious . . . and expensive. Not to mention the extreme danger to which we would expose you by funding such a project, which will have to be filmed in some of the most dangerous places on the planet: Chechnya, Dagestan, and others whose names escape me. Nobody will underwrite the insurance for such a trip.”
“I don’t need insurance, I was a tightrope walker in a past life,” I said, which drew further silent glares of reprobation.
A tightrope walker in those lives in which I haven’t been a high-class hooker. Ha! “Dangerous places .” How was I supposed to tell them that even in Brussels, where they plant bombs in the metro, I don’t have medical insurance, and in fact I never had one? Nor could I tell them that during the journey I would be relying on the protection of my Chechen friends or how much I was counting on money and support from Tyumen the Kalmyk. Nor could I mention the money I had borrowed from some Albanians, under signature, and that I had no way of paying back. I looked at the pairs of feet under the table in front of which I was seated as if in a tribunal. They were all wearing expensive, elegant sandals, Bourdieu was even wearing some with a kind of a Scythian intaglio, with mythological creatures embossed on the leather, I think he was wearing them just to annoy me, while the chief demoness was barefoot, rubbing her feet together as she examined me; her verdict was final. I looked at the rings on her toes and wondered whether I could ever be able to go to bed with such an incarnation of Bourdelian or Bourdevilish evil, and whether, when making love, I could, for example, stick two fingers up her ass, or whether she would do it to me, and as these thoughts went round and round in my head, the greasy saffron and exhaust fumes of Paris were wafting to me from outside, while the flies kept buzzing around my head, so I waved them away with both arms. I cleared my throat, seeking to gain time to tell them something persuasive, a final remark that would leave them speechless, suddenly making them discover in me a follower of Bourdieu, a Barthesian structuralist, a man who knows that language is fascist and who would gladly abandon himself to Foucault’s embrace. Ah, Foucault, oui, to have Foucault grapple me from behind, caress my nipples, impale me . . . how else? In a Foucauldian way.
The flies swirled back and I flapped my hands around my head.
“Are you driving away the flies?” the torturer-in-chief asked.
“No. I’m conducting an orchestra of invisible midgets.”
Bourdieu burst into a laughter that was almost admiring, but a cold, venomous glance from the barefoot villainess stifled it.
That was my Parisian adventure, followed by a similar commission in Brussels, to which I turned up drunk in the morning, knowing that I had nothing to lose, anticipating that I wouldn’t get so much as a brass farthing for my project, and exhausted after a long night of erotic video chat with Eva.
But I didn’t want to sell the last of my precious old books to make the documentary. Apart from the princeps edition of Dumas’s Russia diary, I also had dictionaries of all the languages of the Caucasus, as well as an in-folio of a book by that extraordinary Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, a seventeenth-century precursor of all the modern sciences, from the study of Chinese to espionage techniques, including the most disastrous failed attempt to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs. That volume, in Latin, bound in Caucasian calf leather, is titled Arca Noe and dates from 1675; therein the good priest interprets the history of the Flood, seeking its most logical ramifications and implications. Athanasius Kircher calculates the dimensions of Noah’s Ark, which was to run aground in the South Caucasus, in Armenia, on Mount Ararat, basing his figures on how big it should have been to transport pairs of all the animal species, then he draws countless plans and diagrams and figures. He raises the question of whether additional cattle were loaded on the Ark as food for the beasts of prey, the perfumed panthers, the lions and the jackals, and he even tries to come up with a technical solution for the collection and disposal of all the droppings, dung and other categories of excrement.
But above all, the phantasmagorical padre pushes the story to its furthermost logical limits; he is the first exegete in history to have understood that in the event of a global flood, all the species of fishes and marine animals would also have died of suffocation because of the lack of oxygen in those muddy, poisoned waters, which still lie at the bottom of the Caspian Sea. His engravings, teeming with dead aquatic creatures, are the most disturbing ever to have been imagined when it comes to the Flood. At first, we don’t realise why they are so disturbing, until we see all the fishes, whales and corals bloated with the gases of death.
So, I didn’t want to sell my books, even though, moneyless, one Monday morning, after a weekend of refraining from drinking in the hope of freshening the hue of my skin, I had resorted, out of desperation, to the extreme measure of going to a casting office for porn actors.
“We don’t make vintage flicks anymore,” they said, firmly rejecting me, with a look at my grey hair.
Excerpts from reviews
“Take two lovers eager to rediscover themselves and send them to an exotic destination. Not a classic one, like Bali, the Maldives or Dubai, but one that lies where Europe and Asia meet. There haven’t been many advertisements for the lands inhabited by the Buddhist Mongols of Kalmykia (see the film The Gulls), and not much has been said about Dumas’s journey to the Caucasus, which is the obsession of one of the characters. And so, in the novel Perfumed Panthers, which is structured like a road trip, writer Dan Alexe reveals countless details about the customs, culture, tragedies, and inflamed conflicts of the lands by the Caspian Sea, the regions where Volga’s Delta meets the steppeand the tracts once crossed by the caravans that took the Silk Road.”
“Having set off ‘to discover the Islam of the snows and icy crevasses, over which the Caucasian horseman makes his steed leap after blindfolding it to hide the chasm,’ Dan Alexe looks deep into the chasm of the human soul, of the mountain peoples, of (absolute and local) power, and in this way makes the chasm look him straight in the eye. An abyssal novel, Perfumed Panthers!”