Review: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

This book is weird; just a warning. But it’s weird in a clever way, so read it.

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Perfume is heavy in detail and light in terms of 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 just be so ‘normal’. Had Patrick Süskind gone such an ordinary route, I would be shrieking that he allowed his unique premise to devolve into a common 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 so many other authors would. Writing that the oil from jasmine flowers smells like jasmine would have tanked this book. Treating scents as though they are 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 to create 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 far 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 to delude me, 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 just because it is so unlike all the other books out there these days and it’s freaking well-written. Even though it’s not the most pleasant read, the end is genuinely startling. It has been awhile that I’ve been excitedly turning the pages of a book without the least idea or expectation of how it would end.

Overall: 4.5. It’s original, clever, and suspenseful. The information on perfumery that would cost momentum in the hands of a lesser writer are 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.

Translation: Read it and if you don’t like it, I’ll understand. But try it!!