Title: "The Perfume: Story of a Murderer"
Author: Patrick Suskind
Originally published 1985 “The Perfume” has been slipping through the decades with one mission only and namely leaving you speechless. Or at least this is how it happened with me once I read the novel. Extravagant, visual and surrealistic the story spins out of reality’s control, demolishes the rules with a bulldozer and show like a grand theatre hall how the least likely things happen.
During my German class years I had the misfortune to sample firsthand literary works written by German speaking and have been bored out of my wits. The reason behind this is because Germans never really incorporate emotions in what they right and go along the lines of a philosophical essay. Intelligence in a novel is something I value, but it can’t support any story on its own. Needless to say “The Perfume” came as a pleasant surprise and a dark fairy tale taken from the Brothers Grimm, left to mature and evolve and then served with an actual historical background.
Süskind has woven a creepy tale, which dissects the human heart, spirit and essence so boldly, into our own time line in such a way that you begin to wonder what part is fiction and what is not and whether or not this is based on a true story. The protagonist’s name is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, whose life is almost identical to most of the children in France during the 18th century. Left for adoption, then cast off into child labor and an unsure future. But what separates him from all the rest is his superhuman sense of smell. This is the first step into a new world for the reader as Süskind give smells a whole new dimension to play with. Jean-Baptiste can identify any solid, liquid or gaseous substance in all of its nuances. He can memorize them, mix them any way he wants and then use them as a map to guide himself without using his sight.
Naturally this talent saves him from a low paying job as a leather worker and launches him straight in to the perfume business under the wing of perfumer Giuseppe Baldini, who is only interested in profit. Either way Jean-Baptiste soaks in all the knowledge and techniques from Baldini before leaving for Grasse. There he plans to learn new ways to isolate smells from inanimate objects, but after spending seven years into a cave to rejoice the absence of human smells his quest changes. Suddenly he realizes that his own body doesn’t emit any odor of its own. Now he sets off to create the finest human body odor there can exist and from then on the story progresses into a bizarre tale of murder and planning to create the ultimate perfume. A flask, which is filled with the scent of the 25 most beautifully smelling teenage girls.
The nutshell version is the first hook in experiencing “The Perfume” and it doesn’t stop here. But be warned that this is a book for the people, who aren’t satisfied with the normal and would like something more daring, more surreal and sometimes if necessary vulgar. Süskind offers all. Every human relationship is being translated through the world of smells. The motherly connection with a baby, the way society recognizes and treats you, love and the concept of right or wrong are all a game of smells.
Mix the right ingredients and you possess the power to make women fall faint from admiration, outwit and deceive the harshest law enforcer that you are as innocent as a lamb and if the circumstances require, turn invisible. This statement is proven in the novel with heavy scenes of a group festive orgy and an act of cannibalism that transcends the concept of love and twists it to portray the ugly extremes sowed in the human instinct. In the ultimate end with the right perfume you can test the morale of the human spirit, as proven there is none or at least it’s rather flexible; you can overcome limitations in communication and you can change identity with a simple spray. In the case of Jean-Baptiste, the freedom to forge any identity is what leaves him with none whatsoever, instantly detaching from the human world. He is an outsider, who is only allowed to observe.
Of course another fun part is to perceive the world through the eyes of Jean-Baptiste, who is the epitome of all sociopathic anti-heroes to be created. His character is forced through another extreme, where it thrives and you wonder how in their inner world a human being can in reality never be part of the race. There are no attachments to the people in his life or around him. What ties him to the world is the abundance of smells, smells, which no one else can sense. Thus it leaves Jean-Baptiste a one of the kind character in a state of loneliness, some might relate to, but the majority will find too new and with different dimensions to connect.
As a conclusion I want to add that “The Perfume” has done quite a lot to impress various artists, siring several songs, two of which are “Scentless Apprentice” by Nirvana and “Du Riechst So Gut” by Rammstein. A 2006 movie also appeared starring Dustin Hoffman, which earned a total 135$ Million in Europe. The story did quite well I think. A real rarity.