Perfume – The story of a Murderer by Patrick-Süskind book review

Never could I have imagined the manner in which the story would be presented, the life that was given to the world of our “hero” and the total contrast this made with his own inhumanity. I have rarely felt so distant and estranged from a book character, which totally reflects his position in his world, the only living creature without a scent, an “abomination” almost inhuman. But for me the most moving thing about this book was the way in which I was suddenly made so aware of the importance of scent in our world. Without it, there is no reality, no third dimension to what we see and feel.
This is definitely worth reading, but be warned, I found this book decidedly eerie and chilling.

It is about smell, all the smells of 18th century Paris, from delicate perfumes to foul stenches. Each scene is described in terms of smell rather than by sight or sound, and I felt that the book was a worthwhile read because of this novel technique alone.

Jean Baptiste Grenouille has no personal smell and was born at a fish market as an illegitimate child. When found, the mother was hanged and Grenouille was given up to Father Terrier for care. It is ironic that a society like this one has a set of laws protecting infants like Grenouille from infanticide, and even executing mothers who attempt it (such as Grenouille’s mother), but still has the belief that infants are not yet human beings. Grenouille’s mother even reflected that sometime, maybe, she would be married and have some “real children”. She did not believe that her illegitimate children were real, since she could not support them and she did not have a husband to give the children a name.

Father Terrier argues from his theological position, which might seem no less cruel, that infants are, even when baptized, not complete souls.  This passage shows how Grenouille was marginalized and considered subhuman from his birth.

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“Impossible! It is absolutely impossible for an infant to be possessed by the devil. An infant is not yet a human being; it is a prehuman being and does not yet possess a fully developed soul. Which is why it is of no interest to the devil. Can he talk already, perhaps? Does he twitch and jerk? Does he move things about in the room? Does some evil stench come from him?”

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He was after all only an apprentice, which was to say, a nobody. Strictly speaking, as Baldini explained to him–this was after he had overcome his initial joy at Grenouille’s resurrection–strictly speaking, he was less than a nobody, since a proper apprentice needed to be of faultless, i.e., legitimate, birth, to have relatives of like standing, and to have a certificate of indenture, all of which he lacked.

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Grenouille was marginalized his entire life. Pre-Revolutionary France was not not a meritocracy, and not even Grenouille’s genius at perfume-making could erase the ugly, and socially unacceptable, circumstances of his birth. Everything about Grenouille underlines his lack of humanity; his ugliness, his lack of desire for love, his extraordinary ability to smell, and even his name all separate him from the rest of the characters in the novel.

The fact that Baldini does help Grenouille get the papers of a journeyman in the end is only so that Baldini can be rid of Grenouille forever. Because of his lack of scent, we are led to believe, Grenouille never makes a real connection with another human being so that someone would do something out of love for Grenouille.

In order to get such reactions, Grenouille finds later, he needs to manufacture an artificial scent tailored to the reaction he wants. No one sees Grenouille as human, not even himself; the reader is left to wonder whether this perception has been correct or not.

And even as he spoke, the air around him was saturated with the odor of Amor and Psyche. Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.

Grenouille is, of course, an abhorrent, vicious, loathsome character, and Suskind takes great pains to point this out literally at various intervals throughout the story. However, despite his actions and the way he is described, Suskind cleverly says one thing and shows another, presenting Grenouille as the unquestioned hero of the story, allowing him to come across as, at the very least, sympathetic (if not pitiable), and at most, a man whose single-minded drives and desires leads to the reader outright rooting for him to succeed in his horrific acts.

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The more Grenouille had become accustomed to purer air, the more sensitive he was to human odor, which suddenly, quite unexpectedly, would come floating by in the night, ghastly as the stench of manure, betraying the presence of some shepherd’s hut or charcoal burner’s cottage or thieves’ den. And then he would flee farther, increasingly sensitive to the increasingly infrequent smell of humankind. Thus his nose led him to ever more remote regions of the country, ever farther from human beings, driving him on ever more insistently toward the magnetic pole of the greatest possible solitude.

This manifestation of Grenouille’s pathological slant of mind shows that his mania is increasing. Having been freed of the horrible scent-soup of Paris, he finds that he prefers the smell of nothingness (humanly speaking, which is like the smell of himself) to the smell of his own kind.

Our fascination with Grenouille’s choice may be predicated on the idea that it is normal for human beings to want association with each other; for one not to want it, as shown by Grenouille’s desire to get as far from the smell of people as possible, is to be less than human.

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As the subtitle of the book is ‘The Story of a Murderer’, I don’t think it gives anything away to say that the book climaxes in the brutal murders of 25 women that Grenouille uses to create the most perfect smelling perfume the world has ever known. Despite all the difficulties Grenouille encounters, all the opposition and roadblocks (and it’s indisputably true that Grenouille was dealt a bad hand in life), he still takes his lumps admirably and never wavers from his pursuit of his dream, which, at its heart, is something I think everyone aspires to be able to do. Furthermore, when Grenouille finally does achieve his dream, he is heartbroken to discover that, after everything, it was not what he’d envisioned. Sadly, I think that is something people can relate to as well. And so it is that the story of a murderer ends up as something everyone can relate to.

bed14d095e2824df3288e00fc0ba78bashe was still there, the incomparably beautiful flower, she had survived the winter unblemished, her sap was running, she was growing, expanding, driving forth the most exquisiite ranks of buds! Her scent had grown stronger, just as he had expected, without losing any of its delicacy. What a year before had been sprinkled and dappled about was now blended into a faint, smooth stream of scent that shimmered with a thousand colors and yet bound each color to it and did not break.

To compare her scent to a “sap” dehumanizes her completely. Laure is, to Grenouille (and, perhaps, to everyone around her) only the product of the desires she incites in others. For Grenouille especially, Laure is only a source of a scent, which develops and changes in a predictable pattern over tim. He monitors her and knows, somehow, that the changes which will take place within the next year will convert her scent to its peak of desirability.

perfume-the-story-of-a-murderer-2All that said, the end of the book is insane, but wonderfully so. It’s completely out of left field and it’s almost hard to accept that what is happening is real and not some sort of dream (which it isn’t). The reader is left waiting for the moment when Grenouille opens his eyes and we’re told what really happened, but it never comes. Compared to the climax, the end of the story almost makes perfect sense, when in any other story it would be seen as equally insane, if not more so. But don’t let it detract you from reading the book. It’s true, you’ll either love it or hate it, but no matter what you’ll be unable to say it wasn’t worthwhile.

 

About the author

Patrick Süskind was born near Munich, in 1949. He studied medieval and modern history at the University of Munich. His first play, The Double Bass, was written in 1980 and became an international success. His first novel, Perfume, became an internationally acclaimed bestseller. He is also the author of The Pigeon and Mr. Summer’s Story, and a coauthor of the enormously successful German television series Kir Royal. Patrick Süskind lives and writes in Munich.

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