Monday, September 12, 2011


Title: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Author:  Patrick Süskind
List:  #71 on BBC Top 100
Worth reading?  Yes.

Perfume is a journey of the senses.  To fully appreciate this novel, you need your nose and a sense of smell as much as your eyes and an imagination.  Patrick Süskind's rich descriptions of scents, smells, odors, and stenches create a living scent record of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille's world, and without the ability to conjure up the smells in your imagination, you lose much of the richness of the novel.

The main character is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a young man born in the dirtiest, smelliest part of Paris to a woman who intended to kill him as soon as he was born.  Instead, Grenouille’s mother is executed for his intended murder and the murder of several previous siblings, and Grenouille becomes a ward of the church.  However, he does not find a loving home.  Instead, he is passed on from wet nurse to wet nurse, who all feel there is something unnatural about him because, in smelly eighteenth century France, this baby has absolutely no odor.  Eventually he is placed with a woman who has no sense of smell and he grows up slightly shunned but adequately nourished.

Grenouille’s lack of personal odor is not his only unique characteristic: Grenouille has a fantastic sense of smell.  He can distinguish odors from great distances and can pick out the various components and their quantities from a blended scent.  In fact, Grenouille needs no light to journey in the dark—his nose tells him where everything is and how to find his way.  In his early years, Grenouille enjoys nothing more than to follow his nose to locate the source of a new odor.  As he grows up, he decides that his talents would be best employed as a perfumer, and he dreams of creating a scent that will make everyone adore him.

Grenouille eventually becomes an apprentice to a perfumer, learning the techniques of the trade and creating countless exotic scents that make the perfumer famous.  Grenouille’s most cherished scent, however, is not one of the wonderful perfumes he creates, but the personal odor of a young red-headed virgin just entering puberty.  It is that odor that turns Grenouille into a murderer, and his life becomes devoted to learning all the techniques for extracting scent from all sorts of objects so that he will be able to create his perfect scent.

Grenouille's unfortunate upbringing and passion for odors seem ideal for making him a sympathetic character.  However, something about him made me feel as unsympathetic towards him as the Parisians who shun him for his unnatural odorlessness.  On the other hand, seeing what steps he takes to capture scents is fascinating, as is his ability to absorb knowledge as his skill soars above that of his teachers.  Süskind ends this remarkable book in an unexpected but satisfying way, as the ultimate scent is finally born with a surprising and unanticipated effect on Jean-Baptiste Grenouille.

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