Patrick Suskind’s Perfume is an epic novel built in and of the realm of the senses, though focusing primarily on the sense of smell. Odour is used as a singular writing device and its theme permeates the novel – at times sickeningly saccharine and at others artfully mixed into the piece. When the mix becomes divine, we follow antagonist Grenouille on his sensate journey so closely that we almost become part of his inner world. In so viewing, we are allowed a closer glimpse of his unique and thoroughly twisted viewpoint – we waft with him on his murderous search for the perfect scent.
Set in France, the novel opens with a blatant olfactory description of the stench that must have exuded from the pre-hygienic Paris of the 1700’s; we are immediately dropped into this fetid, aromatic world:
In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots… The peasant stank as did the priest, the apprentice as did his master’s wife, the whole of the aristocracy stank, even the king himself stank, stank like a rank lion, and the queen like an old goat, summer and winter.
Introduced to the main character as a small child, Grenouille’s world is macabre a best. He is birthed by a fishwife while she is cutting up smelly fish with a rusty knife and who cuts him free with that same blade; she leaves him to die in a pile of rotting fish. Later, his nursemaid refuses to breastfeed him because he takes too much milk. As the novel progresses, we find that he has two bizarre, opposing traits: he has no scent of his own, yet has an almost supra-natural sense of smell. These traits combine to set him apart from his peers; Grenouille is mistrusted and treated like a monster. The author’s characterisation of the protagonist seems aimed to disturb yet draw sympathy, and keeps the reader fascinated at the same time.
Ultimately, I think this title works. Perfume tends to lose a lot of its driving narrative towards the end, almost mimicking the antagonist’s waning desire to identify with the people around him, no matter how bizarrely his motivations. Grenouille’s journey is ultimately one of acceptance, and this is where the novel falters. This theme is turned on its head nearing the book’s end, when the protaganist no longer wishes to blend into society: he wants to make humans worship him, so that he can destroy then.
The sections concerning the making of scents are sublime, and Perfume merits at least a single read-through on the strength of its descriptions alone. Not only did I find the intricate processes involved in mixing a scent fascinating, but the way this was expressed on the page-so well-realized that I could almost smell the scents through my own nose, rather than through master perfumer Guiseppe Baldini’s-clearly showcased Suskind’s great stylistic ability.
Perfume really is a ripping read that keeps you in suspense right up until the end: will Grenoulle find the acceptance he seeks or will he falter, beset on all sides by ‘lesser beings’? I felt quite a deep need to follow the plot through to the end, despite Grenouille’s loathsome and murderous actions, and this was due to the little hooks throughout: after Grenouille kills the first girl, finding himself drawn to such a heavenly scent; his rise to becoming a master perfumer; and, his acceptance into rich French society via the Marquis de la Taillade-Espinasse. These all hinted towards a dastardly yet grand ending. Throughout the novel we are shown how extraordinary Grenouille’s nasal abilities are, and there seems an ominous expectation that when he reaches his full potential something either marvellous or terrifying will happen.
Perfume is written in an archaic style, despite being first published in 1985. It reads like a stylistic homage to Dickens and his contemporaries – an excess of description being one of the novel’s main strengths. I actually admire the Suskind for ably carrying on in this style throughout an entire novel.
Patrick Suskind’s Perfume could have swiftly become stale and boring, overusing scents as a stylistic mode; instead, it is a well-written and highly entertaining read. As a character, Grenouille will sicken you to the core, but the completion of his journey is, in a very human way, uplifting.