Perfume by Patrick Súskind attracted my attention on our bookshelf in Sicily. On the cover was the face of a beautiful, red-haired girl, and the announcement that it was now a major film. (The novel was first published in German in 1985; it was translated and published in English in 1986; it appeared as a Penguin paperback in 1987.)
One of the teasers inside the front cover, attributed to the Daily Mail said, “Horrid it may be, but Mr. Súskind’s tale is well written and most unusual.” That convinced me.
Perfume is the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille who was born in Paris in 1738. His mother worked at a fish stall in the slums, where she had given birth on four previous occasions, and like those four births, she shovelled Grenouille under her table to be discarded with the fish offal. However, she was arrested, found guilty of infanticide, and executed. He was assigned to a wet nurse and passed from orphanage to orphanage. As a young child he developed an extraordinary sense of smell, and he memorised thousands of individual scents. As a boy, he became an apprentice to a tanner. Then he had the opportunity to become the apprentice to a perfumer whose creative energies had deserted him. With Grenouille working for him, though, he began to produce the most exquisite, expensive and in-demand perfumes.
At one point, Grenouille discovered a perfectly captivating and magical scent. He traces it through the streets of Paris and found that it was coming from a young and beautiful girl. He killed her, striped her naked and gorged himself on her scent.
As an apprentice perfumer in Paris he learned most of the skills necessary to capture particular scents, but later, he went to Grasse, where he learned how to capture the most elusive scents. Once again he discovers a magical scent and he traces it to the young daughter of an important official. He kills her, too, and extracts her scent to make the most magnificent scent. He is arrested, found guilty and sentenced to death, but he manages to escape death in Grasse, only to be murdered in Paris.
This is, as the Daily Mail suggests, a pretty horrid tale, but it is delivered in good, solid literary style. Moreover, Herr Súskind knows enough about the perfume business to make almost credible the extraordinary skill of his main character. Almost credible, but sometimes my mind boggled at some of Grenouille’s concoctions, and the distances over which he could trace the particular scent of one human being. There is no accounting for Grenouille’s extraordinary skill: no medical, or evolutionary theory or precedent is put forward.
Grenouille, himself, is a despicable character in whom one cannot find even the least redemptive feature. This is a weakness in the novel: a reader needs a motivation beyond lucid prose and a desire to know what’s next to keep on reading.
There is an interlude where Grenouille sequesters himself as a hermit in a mountain. It is not clear to me why he did this or how this interlude contributes to the development of the character or the plot.
At the end of the novel, the author allows some inconsistency in the reaction of crowds of people to Grenouille’s ultimate perfume: in one case, they love him, in the other, they kill him.
This is a well-written, unique fantasy. I did not find it gruesome. I would have liked it better if it were allegorical, or if it stretched my credibility a little less.