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Perfume - Patrick Suskind

General fiction

A murder was the start of his obsession. It was after that first crime that he knew he was a genius, that he understood his destiny. He, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the fishmonger's bastard, was to be the greatest perfumier of all time.

An international sensation from the moment of its publication in Germany, this is one of the most extraordinary novels published in years: the story of a monster loose in 18th-century France and his quest for the perfect perfume.

Patrick Suskind

Soaked with irony, PERFUME unfolds the gruesome allegory of an olfactory genius-monster and his murderous quest for the perfect perfume. With voluptuous language and sly wit, Suskind's prose is lush and evocative The decadence of 18th century France simply comes alive, the depiction is so vivid that you can almost smell the putrid stench of the age. Perfume is a bizarre tale, but it is also lyrical and hypnotic, a fairy tale of terror. This is a mesmerizing and haunting literary achievement and one that I highly recommend to anyone interested in reading an intelligent and thought-provoking novel. 

   Suskind tells the tale of an orphan on the streets of Paris whose hard life would have destroyed a less single-minded pursuer of the sensuous life. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was born with no scent of his own, but with a supernatural ability to detect the scent of others and create any scent he desires due to his highly developed sense of smell. He is driven to murder in order to preserve (or distil) the most glorious of these human odours to produce the perfect perfume. Grenouille's sense of smell is so subtly attuned that he can distinguish a single, elemental scent among the various aromas and stenches bombarding him. 

   This extraordinarily original premise of a seemingly soulless killer encompasses one of the most elegant, aristocratic and erotic novels I have ever read. It is portrayed as both a plausible and frightening concept. Perfume tells the haunting tale of a man reminiscent of the Phantom of the Opera. The reader experiences Grenouille's thoughts and emotions. However, identification with him is of course impossible, (Grenouille's character is chilling and terrifying). 

   The author has a sharp eye for detail and is not afraid to stray from his plot for an interesting digression. By refusing to allow any empathy for any of his doomed characters, the author forces us to take an ambivalent view towards his sociopathic protagonist. We become immune to the horrors that Grenouille commits as they are described with such vacillation. However, this detracts from the emotional impact that Suskind attempts to portray in the final chapters. But many things still haunt me; the ending of the book, predictable but terrifying none the less, the baby being left to rot, the wet nurse's revulsion at feeding him and the first time Grenouille catches the perfect scent. There are times when it can be a little slow, but I do wonder how much was changed in the translation to English, (it was originally published in German).

   At one point, Grenouille's search for the ultimate scent produces an outburst of animalistic behavior that Grenouille justifies by arrogating himself the right to kill those beneath him. The explanation behind man's bestial nature is portrayed as "simple" manipulation. But is it any wonder that a society so filled with putrefying rot, disease and sickening body odours should produce a specimen of pure evil as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille? Is he the inexplicable embodiment of evil we are asked to believe or the refracted image of a distorted humanity that he is estranged from and therefore will commit any act to obtain the love he seeks? He is both perpetrator and victim. The denial of his humanity is what drives his self loathing and megalomania which must run its tragic course. 

   Kurt Cobain once said in an interview that Perfume was his favourite book. It's easy to see why........ Near the end, Grenouille's spilling of the secret scent triggers a mindless orgy of the most gigantic proportions and the self destructive course of the character is evident to everyone but Grenouille. Perfume remains one of my all time favorite novels. Suskind is so tremendously innovative in both his ideas and his writing, that while the story does become predictable and involves gratuitous murders, it does not dwell upon violence or gore, but there are strong sexual undertones. 

   It is one of the most gloriously descriptive novels you will ever read. It is an unforgettable commentary on depravity, unfettered arrogance, and ironically misplaced idealism. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is an utterly inhuman monster, with no capacity for love or decency or any understanding that these might be desirable qualities, thus portraying the peculiar predicament of pure soullessness.
Book review by Kristyn Starr the big site