“Perfume” by Patrick Suskind

Book Title: Perfume  

Author: Patrick Suskind

Perfume is a curious novel by Patrick Suskind that drifts in an out of the realm of plausibility. What makes this novel unique is the overwhelming use of odours as a descriptive tool. The protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, is obsessed with smell and so the story is told through the nose of our anti-hero. Perfume surpasses the usual spectrum of scents, painting a surprisingly intimate picture of 18th Century France.

Grenouille’s gift is an extraordinary sense of smell that he initially uses to decipher combinations of scents and later, as his egotism grows, endeavours to create the perfect perfume. He is an abomination because he believes that scent is of greater value than human life.

When Grenouille commits his first murder, Suskind introduces the haunting, if not grotesque phase of the novel. Attracted to a scent that leaves him transfixed, Grenouille is lured to a lovely young girl and for the first time experiences love; but not for the girl, for her scent. He kills her in order to drink her exquisite perfume. In his mind he has not murdered, he has simply liberated the valuable commodity attached to an undeserving human body.

Perfume is almost a fable. Whoever exploits Grenouille meets a karmic end – Baldini the great perfumer, Madame Gaillard, the burly Druot. The lives and deaths of these and other secondary characters are nicely woven into Grenouille’s journey.

Suskind is often sensual in his comparisons, one memorable analogy is:It was as if the man had ten thousand invisible hands and had laid a hand on the genitals of the ten thousand people surrounding him and fondled them in just the way that each of them, whether man or woman, desired in his or her most secret fantasies.” Unfortunately, the development of this ‘richness of scent’ often descends into a seemingly endless inventory of smells.

Suskind frequently oversteps the bounds of believability. It may be that this absurdity suits the unusual theme and bizarre protagonist. Perfume may be a unique commentary on the repugnance and beauty, stench and perfume, of old France, or a satire exposing human depravity, but its strongest quality is that it engages the senses, telling a story that wafts from the pages.