Updated on May 19, 2015
1. ‘Perfume’ by Patrick Süskind
I always wondered whether Süskind was really able to conjure smells through his writing. The answer: he is. This is a book about a character whose most prominent characteristic is his incredible sense of smell and, given that there’s really very little else to like about him, it is essential for the reader to understand exactly how he sees the world through his nose.
Given that the subtitle to this book is ‘The Story of a Murderer’, Grenouille’s actions shouldn’t really come as a surprise. What is surprising is how you find yourself rooting for him: the intoxication of smell and his desperation to create the perfect scent suck the reader in, and you find yourself hoping he’ll achieve his dream, despite the means needed to get there, and despite the fact you’ll never be able to smell it yourself. For a while I pondered a scratch-and-sniff version of the story. It wouldn’t work. Essentially, Süskind has here created fictional smells that are more powerful than real ones.
The representation of humanity is very interesting in this book. Grenouille sees himself as totally ‘other’ and, to him, other people are base and stinking. It’s interesting that, by dehumanising every other person (he compares them to animals, grovelling in the dirt, with dull senses and duller minds) only Grenouille is left. But he’s the least human of all. His powers of smell are superhuman, if anything, but he lacks any personal odour. Humans may stink, but at least they have a smell. What exactly Grenouille is, then, is an interesting question: animal, man, god, or something else?
There is a lot to love about this novel: the span of time works because of Süskind’s deft character development; the other characters we encounter are unique and fascinating (and all die after coming into contact with Grenouille); there is humor, evocative language and the brilliant notion that visual beauty is overrated and the people we believe to be beautiful, are beautiful only because of their smell.
The climactic, tragic and stunning ending brings everything together, as we see what comes of a character who creates and wields ultimate power.
“And even knowing that to possess that scent he must pay the terrible price of losing it again, the very possession and the loss seemed to him more desirable that a prosaic renunciation of both. For he had renounced things all his life. But never once had he possessed and lost.”
I have to confess, I saw the film first, but I enjoyed it so much that I immediately put this book on my list. It took me several years to get round to reading it, but I finally got it as a gift this Christmas and I’m delighted to start a new year of reading with such a good book.
If you enjoyed my review, why not buy the book and let me know what you think?