Perfume: a Story of Murder is such an enriched and sensory tale, both wonderful and disgusting. From the outset Patrick Süskind tells this kind of classic anti-hero story another way: experiential, gross, matter-of-fact. I don’t know what to make of the story and the main character, but at the same time I loved the story-telling, the added layer of detail, the depth it creates in a book. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille and his talented, almost obscene nose is a car crash of a main character: by turns fascinating and horrifying, you cannot look away, creating a complex, contrasting little book.
From the first page this book grabbed me and held me because it immediately gave me something other stories did not: a sense of smell about where we were. From the outset, Perfume knows not just to introduce you to the characters, the time, the place, but also the scent. We are in 18th Century Paris, and with his focus on scent Süskind gives us more to this setting than other storytellers:
“The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of mouldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlours stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp feather beds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots…People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumerous disease.”
Grenouille is a small, disfigured, forgotten little boy. Unpleasant to look at, an orphan passed from one hand to the next, he is just something to be tolerated; he is unremarkable. But the fact of how unremarkable he is is something remarkable in itself: he has a large nose and learns his world through his smell, but has himself no scent. This makes people uncomfortable, makes them want to forget him, despite a vague feeling of discomfort as people try to leave him as soon as possible.
But Grenouille takes care of himself, slowly training his remarkable nose to explore the city and what it can show him through its scents. He is vociferous, insatiable, gruesome in his pursuit. He does not distinguish between pleasant or gross odours, it is all a part of fabric of this world. One evening his aimless learning finally converts to a purpose as he follows his nose to the perfect scent, an smell he must fully possess, must capture and recreate and keep for himself forever. It is a young woman, on the cusp of her adult life, peeling plums.
Grenouille has no scruples or discretion in his single-minded pursuit of scent. He is relentless and dogged, and pays no heed to the lives or morals of others as he sets out to capture this essence of perfection. This makes for discomforting reading; he is simultaneously repulsive and compulsive. But it is moments like this (when Grenouille first sees the ocean) that just kept me going, that reminded me of the colour and depth this writing could give:
“It had a simple smell, the sea, but at the same time it smelled immense and unique, so much so that Grenouille hesitated to dissect the odours into fishy, salty, watery, seaweeds, fresh-airy, and so on. He preferred to leave the smell of the sea blended together, preserving it as a unit, relishing it whole. The smell of the sea pleased him so much that he wanted one day to take it in, pure and unadulterated, in such quantities that he could get drunk on it…[it] really was no smell, but a breath, an exhalation of a breath, the end of all smells – dissolving with pleasure in that breath.”
But the pacing of this book is erratic at times, and is oddly structured. We seem to spend so little time at some of the most seminal parts of Grenouille’s development and spend exhausting, ridiculous chapters feeling isolated and regressive. Süskind’s writing feels like both an anthology and diary, with a tone of retrospection but the structure is without review. And Grenouille’s single-mindedness makes him both fascinating and odious: it is stunning to have such focus and care on a single thing, but he emerges as cruel and manipulative; a tough person to spend time with.
I derived an immense, uncomfortable pleasure from reading Perfume. I totally relished the extra plane of sensory engagement that comes with Süskind’s descriptions of Grenouille’s scents but he is unscrupulous, immoral, grotesque . His world is a tough, beautiful place to spend time. But in the end, there is just such joy for me in a book that involves such a powerful, emotional sense: scent.