by Patrick Süskind
Translated by John E. Woods
Washington Square Books
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Patrick Süskind's first novel, Perfume (Das Parfum) tells the horrific story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an orphan born in Paris in 1738. When Grenouille's abandoned body is found in the garbage, he is taken to an orphanage, where everyone who comes into contact with him finds something about him to be revulsive. What they are unaware of is that Grenouille's body does not have any aroma, a distinction which is so subtle that nobody can place their finger on it, but which colors Grenouille's entire life. Grenouille's strange relationship to odors is further highlighted by his own extremely sharp sense of smell, caused, perhaps, by the lack of necessity to sense past his own smell.
When he comes of age, Grenouille manages to apprentice himself to a perfumer and shows a strong aptitude for mixing strange and exotic perfumes. This skill leads him to his desire to cover his own lack of smell and a quest to create the most unique perfume the world has ever known.
By following Grenouille from his birth, when his mother abandoned him to death among the discarded fish guts through his childhood when he discovered how different he was to his apprenticeship, Süskind is able to evoke several different emotions from the reader, ranging from sympathy for the young orphan to curiosity to disgust and hatred. Grenouille's lack of aroma can be seen as representative of his lack of morals in a world in which the amoral and the ethical were struggling to find a new common ground.
Süskind does a remarkable job in portraying Paris of the eighteenth century, relying more on olfactory descriptions than is common in novels, which supports the rather odd conceit behind the narrative. He describes Grenouille and his actions with a detached demeanor, thereby heightening the horrific nature of Grenouille's actions by not commenting on that nature.
Perfume is a suspense novel. Although the reader knows that Grenouille is guilty, throughout the book the reader wonders whether and how Grenouille will be brought to justice. The novel is also an horror novel, although not of the slasher variety, nor of the Lovecraftian style. Instead, Perfume is a disturbing novel for the matter of fact way Süskind describes Grenouille's actions and motivations. While it is clear that Grenouille is obsessed and insane, he performs within the confines of eighteenth century French society in a perfectly lucid manner.
Süskind's book is sui generis. Part horror, part mystery, part historical fiction, it offers insight into the mind of the criminally insane while speculating on the role the sense of smell plays in our lives. Perfume can't be compared to anything written before it because its premise is so different in many ways than what has come before. While Süskind's later books are relatively common (The Pigeon and Mister Summer's Story), Perfume quite definitely remains his fictional masterpiece.
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