Something doesn’t smell right about Jean-Baptiste Grenouillle. Actually, Grenouille doesn’t smell at all. Or, rather, he smells better than anyone ever has. It all makes sense in Patrick Süskind’s euphoric Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, one of the best books I’ve had the pleasure to have read.
Grenouille is born a bastard child in a squalid corner of 18th-century Paris. Abandoned to die, Grenouille is rescued and given over to a series of wet nurses, none of whom can muster any genuine compassion for the child. Indeed, even as a babe, Grenouille is accused of being possessed by the devil—the most damning evidence being that he does not smell as babies ought to smell. He is, in fact, odorless. Paradoxically, Grenouille has been blessed with an incredible sense of smell. His olfactory sensitivities are such that Grenouille has little use for his other senses. When he is sold into a leather-tanning apprenticeship as an older child, he excels at the craft precisely because he can smell when the chemical reactions taking place within the leather have reached the perfect state. However, when Grenouille encounters the most intoxicating smell he has ever known—that of a pubescent girl—his professional ambitions shift decidedly to the world of perfumery. His greatest goal: to capture the fragrance of female adolescence in a bottle.
Don’t let the title (or the plot summary I’ve provided above) fool you. Surprisingly little of Perfume has to do with killing. Readers might even think the book misleadingly titled, if not for the fact that it is said to be the story of a murderer and not a story of murder. The distinction is telling in this case. Much of the book focuses on Grenouille’s apprenticeship under Baldini, an elderly perfumer who clings desperately to his fading renown. Süskind describes perfuming methods in language as flowery and as mesmerizing as the scents they aspire to create. The relevant passages are at once scholarly and lyrical, a compliment that holds equally well for the other parts of the novel. While some credit must be given to translator John E. Woods, Süskind’s writing blurs the boundary between poetry and prose. It is a gothic novel, but light on the macabre.
More jarring than any violence it contains is Perfume’s outlandish ending. The final 20 pages of the book are all but an assassination of any realism that precedes them. Indeed, the novel veers sharply and suddenly off of its narrative path, crashing full force into the allegorical wayside. I have no doubt that many readers will be disappointed. But for those who can resist the initial impulse to renounce the book’s merits and who will instead invest in several minutes of quiet reflection, appreciation will come. Like a breath of fresh air, you might say.