January 17, 2018

Scents and Scents-Ability

Scents and Scents-Ability
Photo: Netflix

The hero of The Sniffer (“Нюхач”), a Russian-language detective show on Netflix, has a prominent nose but no name and is played by the Estonian Kirill Karo.

The Sniffer is a special investigations consultant who “sees” with his nose. When not on the job, he wears a tiny plastic clip between his nostrils. How it suppresses his sense of smell, we don’t know. The show’s creator, co-writer and director, Artem Litvinenko, doesn’t go for explanations and seems oblivious to making connections to Gogol’s comic story “The Nose.”

Just imagine the Sniffer’s horror if he were called to investigate a barber’s discovery of a nose in his fresh-baked morning roll! “Ivan Yakovlevich stood there absolutely like a dead man. He thought, thought--and didn’t know what to think.” (Иван Яковлевич стоял совершенно как убитый. Он думал, думал — и не знал, что подумать.)

No, the Sniffer is rarely so stumped. When he arrives at a crime scene, he reaches up and plucks the nose-clip out and neatly places it into a plastic box, like kids in my childhood who would take out their retainers when we sat down to pizza. I’m guessing that Litvinenko wants us to understand that the clip obliterates all those random smells that would distract the Sniffer, as they did Dr. Oliver Sacks in “The Dog Beneath the Skin” (in The Man Who Mistook His Wife as a Hat), wherein Sacks, as a medical student having over-stimulated himself with drugs, mysteriously became for three weeks a hyper-smeller. Sacks wrote about that experience in the third-person (he only confessed to the story as his own experience decades later in On the Move):

“He found he could distinguish all his friends--and patients--by smell: ‘I went into the clinic, I sniffed like a dog, and in that sniff recognised, before seeing them, the twenty patients who were there. Each had his own olfactory physiognomy, a smell-face, far more vivid and redolent than any sight face.’ He could smell their emotions--fear, contentment, sexuality--like a dog. He could recognise every street, every shop, by smell--he could find his way around New York, infallibly, by smell.”

At each murder investigation, as the camera whirls around his head, we see what the Sniffer, with one little inhalation, sees: a smoky trail and images of the perpetrator (maybe what Sacks called “a smell-face”) and the series of events. Though I have convinced myself that Litvinenko (who borrows heavily from Sherlock and House) must have been originally inspired by Sacks’ true tale, if he did he hasn’t made use of some of those details yet. The Sniffer doesn’t seem to smell anyone’s emotions. He’s a loner, unempathetic. When asked by his beautiful, engaging ear, nose and throat doctor how long he’s had this extraordinary sensory ability, he woundedly answers, “What does that matter?” Dr. Tatyana Voskresenskaya (Nina Gogaeva) thinks he would make a good subject of a book – an idea that seems to peeve him. Sacks was much cheerier in his hyperosmia (super-smelling), but perhaps that’s because the experience was all new to him.

There is an odor of embarrassment that pervades this farfetched, politically incorrect, slick series. When Sacks remembered his experience of hyperosmia, he was not embarrassed but fascinated: “Smell pleasure was intense – smell displeasure, too – but it seemed to him less a world of mere pleasure and displeasure than a whole aesthetic, a whole judgment, a whole new significance, which surrounded him.” But sad sack Sniffer doesn’t reflect on his lot, as Sacks did. “Somewhat intellectual before, and inclined to reflection and abstraction,” writes Sacks, “he now found thought, abstraction and categorisation somewhat difficult and unreal, in view of the compelling immediacy of each experience.” When the Sniffer has his nose on full-power it doesn’t lead him away from but toward “categorisation.” In his lab, free of sound and people, dealing only with chemicals and his memories, he is obviously deeply reflective. He’s no dog.

He is amazing, but he gets no respect. Everyone – criminals, colleagues, witnesses – can’t help sneering a bit at the Sniffer’s ability. It’s embarrassing to solve crimes that way, they all seem to agree. And if there’s a crack in the slickness and entertaining conventionality of this show, it’s this: No one really wishes they had the Sniffer’s talent! He’s got it; he’s stuck with it. All it brings him are riches that don’t make him happy.

But what if the Sniffer awakened one morning like Gogol’s Major Kovalev, and looking in the mirror saw a space as flat as a blini? And then, in his scent-blind hunt for it, encountered it on Nevsky Prospect? “How was it possible… that his nose that had just yesterday been on his face, unable to ride or walk, was in a uniform!” (Как же можно, в самом деле, чтобы нос, который еще вчера был у него на лице, не мог ездить и ходить, — был в мундире!)

What a story! – “The Nose” – not to mention The Sniffer: “Still, if you think it over, truly, there’s something to it.” (А все, однако же, как поразмыслишь, во всем этом, право, есть что-то.)

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