There is only one smell commonly found on earth that is worse than the chemical smell of rotting orange rinds.  This, oddly enough, is a woman’s perfume—Chanel ?5.  As it recently emerged from World War II archives that Mademoiselle Chanel was, in her spare time, Agent F-7124 of the Abwehr, the Nazis’ military intelligence, I began wondering whether there might not be a connection between the two odors, one of decrepitude and the other of fear.

The thrall, verging on hysteria, in which Western women since the times of Marilyn Monroe have been held by the advertising and publicity agencies acting on behalf of Chanel ?5 can only be compared with mass adulation for totalitarian leaders like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.  Yet no man I know likes the smell of ?5, or finds the scent even remotely useful for olfactory—dare I say pheromonal?—communication with the opposite sex.

Put bluntly, it stinks to high hell.  Western women take offense when told that it smells like an old lady, yet what they ought to be told is that it smells like an old lady who is a barracks supervisor in a concentration camp.  As it happens, during the Russian Civil War, Ernest Beaux, the Russian perfumer of French origin who compounded the perfume for Mademoiselle, had run an internment camp in Mur mansk, above the Arctic Circle.  Beaux later recalled that the black waters of the Barents Sea had been an inspiration to him when he resumed his career as a “nose” in Paris.

In fairness, we do not know what Beaux’s original concoction, chosen by Mademoiselle from among the ten samples he had made up, was like, though I have reason to suspect it had something in common with the Soviet perfume I shudder at remembering, Krasnaya Moskva (“Red Moscow”).  This was made in a factory the Bolsheviks had looted from its owners, Henri Brocard, in 1917.  Beaux had worked for its main competitor in Russia, A. Rallet & Co., until it too was nationalized and renamed Soap and Perfume Works No. 4, later Liberty Perfume Factory.  Again, we have no way of knowing what the original, launched in 1913 for the tercentenary of the Romanov dynasty as Bouquet de Catherine, smelt like, but the Soviet incarnation of it—it was said to consist chiefly of an extract of carnation—was one of the foundational nightmares of my Soviet childhood.

Sickly sweetness, however, is not the only characteristic that makes Chanel ?5 smell like death.  Along with the last scents assembled by Beaux at Rallet, ?5 was among the first perfumes in history to rely in its composition on aldehydes, synthetic substances of whose presence in the world we only become aware when we read about the formaldehyde in which Damien Hirst has pickled a shark under the preposterous pretext of giving it a fancy title like The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.  In fact, on the basis of a recent chromatographic analysis Marcel Carles, son of the founder of the Ecole de Parfumerie Roure in Grasse, was able to determine that ?5 was developed from Bouquet de Catherine, meaning that the Chanel perfume and the bane of my childhood, Red Moscow, are in effect cousins.

It is synthetic substances like the aldehyde C-12 MNA (2-methyl undecanal), first produced in 1903 by another Russian of French extraction, the chemist Auguste Georges Darzens, that account for the scent’s action as an olfactory dead end—a blind wall of smell—rather than a bouquet in which different notes may be discerned, a polyphonic cloud of opalescent nuances whose billowing clothes a woman.  Musically speaking, where the great scents not relying on aldehydes are like the voice of an Amelita Galli-Curci, summoning the hedonist from the recesses of an old gramophone, ?5 brays like a Madonna in an iPod.

The analogy is not as farfetched as it appears.  We know that the olfactory is the only human sense that bypasses the thalamus and connects directly to the forebrain, with the consequence that smell may touch our hearts even more quickly than music; while the neural convergence of olfactory and sonar information is a known physiological phenomenon in certain animals, called smound.  Just as what we experience as flavor may result from the interaction of smell and taste, smound is an overlapping of smell and sound.

Why does this quintessentially Soviet fragrance, this smound of death camps and the black waters of the Barents Sea, seem so attractive to womenfolk in Western “bourgeois democracies”?  It is as though the yearning for totalitarianism in the West is so innate that it is discernible at the molecular level.  “The way to a woman’s heart is along the path of torment,” opined Sade.  Indeed, it appears there is something of the misbegotten marquis in this absurd conundrum.

And the men?  The men do what they do best.  They go along, led not so much by the nose as despite it.