Review: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind

Perfume is heavy in detail and light on plot points, so here, to minimize spoilers, is the description from the dust jacket:

In the slums of 18th-century Paris a baby is born. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille clings to life with an iron will, growing into a dark and sinister young man who, although he has no scent of his own, possesses an incomparable sense of smell. He apprentices himself to a perfumer and quickly masters the ancient art of mixing flowers, herbs, and oils. But his quest to create the ‘ultimate perfume’ leads him to commit a series of brutal murders until no woman can feel safe as his final horrifying secret is revealed.

That’s it. It’s a simple story, and that’s why it’s brilliant. There aren’t heaps of characters, convoluted plot lines, or extra hoopla. The entire book is a clear study of Grenouille’s quest and mental state; once it finds its stride, it doesn’t surrender an ounce of momentum. Grenouille is arrogant, misanthropic, immoral, and wicked; he even lacks the charisma that allows similarly black-hearted people to move through society. He is not worth rooting for, but the story is constructed in such a way that the reader doesn’t root against him either. I wanted Grenouille to be caught, but if he were caught and executed, that would be so “normal.” Had Patrick Süskind gone such an ordinary route, I’d be whining that he allowed his unique premise to devolve into an episode of Law and Order: SVU.

As Grenouille’s apprenticeships takes up a large part of the novel, it contains heaps of information about the process of making perfumes. And it’s fascinating! Süskind’s descriptors for scents and odors are creative and clever. He doesn’t say something has the warm aroma of chestnuts or the dank odor of a basement like other authors might. Treating scents as though they’re wine, he describes top and bottom notes, and the feelings they elicit in the person who smells them.

Grenouille’s innate grasp of perfumery is used for more than his quest for the ultimate perfume. Driven half-mad by the realization that he has no odor, he decides to create several odors for various purposes. One allows him to blend in, another makes him seem distinguished, another is used to keep people away, and so on. Most curious is the scent that allows him to blend in. He becomes unremarkable by being so regular as to not be worth looking at. He’s able to slip into and out of places unnoticed; already quiet, this allows him to become a ghost and it’s a more interesting sort of invisibility than Harry Potter’s cloak, etc. (Not to slam Harry Potter, of course.)

First he made an odor for inconspicuousness, a mousy, workaday outfit of odors with the sour, cheesy smell of humankind still present, but only as if exuded into the outside world through a layer of linen and wool garments covering an old man’s dry skin. Bearing this smell, he could move easily among people. The perfume was robust enough to establish the olfactory existence of a human being, but at the same time so discreet that it bothered no one. Using it, Grenouille was not actually present, and yet his presence was justified in the most modest sort of way—a bastard state that was very handy . . . (183)

Even better:

On certain occasions, to be sure, this modest scent proved inconvenient. When he had errands to run for Druot or wanted to buy his own civet or a few musk pods from a merchant, he might prove to perfectly inconspicuous that he was either ignored and no one waited on him, or was given the wrong item or forgotten while being waited on. For such occasions he had blended a somewhat more redolent, slightly sweaty perfume, one with a few olfactory edges and hooks that lent him a coarser appearance and made people believe he was in hurry and on urgent business . . . (183)

This is brilliant because it allows Grenoille to be even seedier and more deceptive; but it’s interesting because when I think of someone toying with my senses, I don’t imagine my sense of smell being preyed upon. Of all the senses, the sense of smell is probably most taken for granted. It gets little fanfare. There’s no superhero with a super sniffer. (No popular ones, at least.)

Most stories set in 1800s Paris have a tendency to romanticize the city. But since Grenouille despises people and their thousands of aromas and stenches, Süskind creates a filthy, disgusting place. There is a lot of ugliness in this book, and the murders are also unsettling. It’s an odd book to recommend because I think anyone would be excused for not liking it. To some, the scenes with perfumery will be dry and tedious. To others, the murders will be crude and off-putting—the idea that Grenouille could get away with them is reprehensible. Others will hate Grenouille so much that they toss the book aside. BUT it is entirely worth reading because it is so unlike all the other books out there and it’s well-written. Even though it’s not the most pleasant read, the end is genuinely startling. It has been a while since I’ve excitedly turned the pages of a book without the least idea or expectation of how it would end.

Overall: 4.5 (out of 5.0) It’s original, clever, and suspenseful. The information on perfumery that would cost momentum in other books is interesting. Grenouille is incomparably vile, but he’s so well-written in his little details that I can’t take off points for it. He’s disgusting; even physically, his skin is “maggot-white.” Ew. I don’t think Süskind has a good word for him, and I don’t either.

One thought on “Review: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind”

  1. I read the original version of this book a long time ago, and I can’t help but wonder whether some of the nuances and subtleties are lost in translation. While the story may not be replete with twists and turns, I believe that there’s a deeper symbolism meant to be gleaned from the subject: the obsessive quest for the unattainable in a grotesque example where the psyche is devoid of all but its instinctual tendencies (“Id”) without mediating or mitigating characteristics. I think Süskind’s exceptional gift lies not just in the originality of the story but in the fact that you find yourself both repulsed and fascinated by the main character of the story.

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