“There are scents that linger for decades.” It is these scents of 18th century Paris that author Patrick Suskind dedicates his novel Perfume to. Exploring the psyche of an unusual psychopath, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, Suskind weaves a tale of a man frighteningly disconnected from humanity, lost in single-minded pursuit of “the fleeting realm of scent.”
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born in sweaty, fetid surroudings amidst the unbearable stench of a fish market. His mother, impoverished and uncaring, tries to flee the scene after giving birth but is caught and executed for this act. Shunted to a boarding house, growing up in squalor and neglect, Grenouille is distinctive even in his childhood, possessing “the finest nose in Paris and no personal odour.” The author compares him to a tick “for which life has nothing better to offer than perpetual hibernation.” Outwardly slow and dumb, Grenouille hungrily accumulates all the olfactory experiences life has to offer, storing them in his memory forever. The turning point in his life comes when he experiences a smell unlike anything known to him before, ephemeral, intoxicating, elusive, “the whiff of a magnificent premonition for only a second.” Pulled inexorably to the source, Grenouille discovers it to be a fourteen year old girl. Not caring for the body or the person who is the owner of the scent, he strangles the girl to properly devour and possess the odour. There starts his quest for an olfactory identity of his own and the creation of a perfume that mankind has never experienced before.
Suskind’s Perfume can be compared to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in that they both explore the mind of a person who cannot empathise with mankind. But where Dostoevsky is thorough in the exploration, Suskind falls somewhat short. He raises several interesting existential and metaphysical questions but is not able to answer them satisfactorily. Nevertheless, Perfume is a well-crafted novel, translated from German into English by John E Woods, concocting and recording exotic odours- musk tincture, storax balm, essence of orange blossoms, lime oil, attars of rose and clove, pastilles of myrrh…
Read Perfume for a fascinating protagonist whom you can’t always define your response to and a sensory experience that is almost extra-textual.
If this interested you, you would want to check out this review of the book, and this movie review.