#71. Perfume by Patrick Süskind
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a 1985 literary historical cross-genre novel (originally published in German as Das Parfume) by German writer Patrick Süskind. The version read was translated by John E. Woods. It’s a book of smells – the odors of history, in fact – and on the first page 18th-century Paris is anatomized into its component stinks. The novel explores the sense of smell and its relationship with the emotional meaning that scents may carry. Above all this is a story of identity, communication and the morality of the human spirit.
The story focuses on Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a perfume apprentice in 18th century France who, born with no body scent himself. In its most fetid spot, beside a mephitic cemetery and beneath a Parisian fish stall in 1738, the hero of ”Perfume,” Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, is born, an orphan. But the point, the miraculous point, is that he has no smell at all. He is an orphan whose absence of body odor turns him, also, into an outcast – both damned and blessed, pariah and magician. Grenouille himself is haunted by smells. Everyone who comes into contact with him finds something about him to be revulsive. What they are unaware of is that Grenouille’s body does not have any aroma, a distinction which is so subtle that nobody can place their finger on it, but which colors Grenouille’s entire life. Grenouille’s strange relationship to odors is further highlighted by his own extremely sharp sense of smell, caused, perhaps, by the lack of necessity to sense past his own smell. He recognizes the odors of separate stones and of the varieties of water; he can locate even the most tremulous perfume from miles away; he can separate the simplest stench into its various elements – that of a human being, for example, being composed of cat feces, cheese and vinegar. As a child and young man, he survives as an outsider only through some stubborn instinct – deciding ”in favor of life out of sheer spite and sheer malice” -but this means that in 18th-century France, in an age of ”reason” and a time of ”progress,” he is a barbaric intruder. For him, this is a world stripped bare of its more elegant trappings and organized around the one fundamental principle of smell. When he comes of age, Grenouille manages to apprentice himself to a perfumer and shows a strong aptitude for mixing strange and exotic perfumes. This skill leads him to his desire to cover his own lack of smell and a quest to create the most unique perfume the world has ever known. He begins to stalk and murder virgins in search of the “perfect scent”, which he finds in a young woman named Laura, whom his acute sense of smell finds in a secluded private garden in Grasse.
The 51 chapters of the novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer are unorthodox in that, while they are of varying lengths, most of them are very short. Some of these small divisions are under two pages long. This unusual arrangement creates an episodic feel for the story of Grenouille, and with the rants of the character, you can feel him slipping into insanity.
By following Grenouille from his birth, when his mother abandoned him to death among the discarded fish guts through his childhood when he discovered how different he was to his apprenticeship, Süskind is able to evoke several different emotions from the reader, ranging from sympathy for the young orphan to curiosity to disgust and hatred. Grenouille’s lack of aroma can be seen as representative of his lack of morals in a world in which the amoral and the ethical were struggling to find a new common ground. Süskind does a remarkable job in portraying Paris of the eighteenth century, relying more on olfactory descriptions than is common in novels, which supports the rather odd conceit behind the narrative. He describes Grenouille and his actions with a detached demeanor, thereby heightening the horrific nature of Grenouille’s actions by not commenting on that nature.
Süskind’s book is sui generis. Part horror, part mystery, part historical fiction, it offers insight into the mind of the criminally insane while speculating on the role the sense of smell plays in our lives. Although the reader knows that Grenouille is guilty, throughout the book the reader wonders whether and how Grenouille will be brought to justice. The novel is also a horror novel, although not of the slasher variety, nor of the Lovecraftian style. Instead, Perfume is a disturbing novel for the matter of fact way Süskind describes Grenouille’s actions and motivations. While it is clear that Grenouille is obsessed and insane, he performs within the confines of eighteenth century French society in a perfectly lucid manner. Perfume can’t be compared to anything written before it because its premise is so different in many ways than what has come before. While Süskind’s later books are relatively common (The Pigeon and Mister Summer’s Story), Perfume quite definitely remains his fictional masterpiece.
Some editions of Perfume, such as the one that I read, have as their cover image Antoine Watteau’s painting Jupiter and Antiope, which depicts a murdered woman.