I actually learned how to create an umlaut for this review. I’ll probably forget as soon as I’ve finished, but there you go, at least I made the effort.
Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, has been around for a quarter of a century in published form. Although set in historical France, it was originally written in German, but handily translated.
The title gives a fairly accurate summary of the plot, but the book is so much more than that. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born into a world of poverty and dirt, as his mother shrugs him off like she did the rest of his siblings. Unlike her previous children, Jean-Baptiste refuses to give up, and his newborn cries condemn his neglectful mother to the guillotine. This happens in the first six pages, which might give you an idea of how fast paced the novel is. From his ill fated mother through to the rest of the masters he has throughout the book, Jean-Baptiste is the Angel of Death, as all who take him in suffer a lonely or unwanted death.
Jean-Baptiste has the greatest nose in the world. He can pick out people from miles away, and unravel scents as though unwinding a scarf. Very early on, he begins to collect smells as other people collect books, gathering them together in order to make the perfect smell. While on his quest, he realises that he does not smell. He can tell what a customer has had for lunch a week earlier, but he cannot smell. This might seem to be a distinct advantage to most readers – no more money spent on deodorants or perfume in an effort to smell acceptable at all times. However, for Grenouille, it proves to be a burden as without smell he is invisible in a crowd. Worse than that, he is abhorrent face to face – people avoid him without knowing why. Grenouille manages to create his own scent, and finds more success from then on. Perhaps this is because he gains confidence due to the fact that he has a smell, rather than his application of a fake smell. Either way, he finds himself more socially accepted.
Süskind’s idea that a person’s unique smell is representative of their soul is quite interesting. I even found myself sniffing the inside of my elbows (the place where the scent comes out strongest, apparently) in an attempt to smell me. It didn’t work, and it was a good job I was at home and not out in public, quite frankly. It seems to make sense, though – everyone does have a certain smell, no matter what perfumes they use. It’s not about sweat or smelly feet, but deeper than that. Maybe what you eat or drink makes a difference. Perhaps happy people smell nicer, and so are happy as a result.
As far as his writing goes, Süskind’s prose is impressive. For a fairly heavy subject matter, the book dances along through Grenouille’s childhood and teenage years with a very light touch. He is succinct and articulate, with a pleasing tone of voice which never veers towards being patronising or boring.
His characters are impressive too – Grenouille is a murderer but he is made into a sympathetic figure because he is painted as lonely, in search of love but with the knowledge that he is too strange to be loved. He is described as a pet, a tick, a cuckoo in the nest – very rarely as human.
When Grenouille begins murdering properly, the narrator shifts to someone else, who reports on the killings. This is very clever as the reader is obviously aware that it’s Grenouille, but no-one else is. We are therefore in the position of knowing the mystery and being able to view it from the bewildered townspeople’s perspective.
I was familiar with the story as I saw the 2006 film of the same name. The story is fairly faithfully followed in the film, although understandably conversations and characters are jettisoned in favour of pacing. One of the main differences for me, though, was that Grenouille is unattractive in the book, with scars and carbuncles from slave labour and diseases adorning his face and body. In the film, he’s played by Ben Whishaw, who is not unattractive, in my opinion. I suppose that’s the difference between film and book – as his confidence grew, so did his social success. Perhaps he was not ugly, but felt so until he acquired new clothes and a scent of his own.
I’d recommend Perfume to people who enjoy an historical novel that’s a bit different. Don’t be put off if you’ve seen the film – I found the language to be easy to read and the description was kept to a minimum, allowing the reader to imagine items for themselves.
Next week – Scarlet Thomas’ Popco. It’s so pretty – I’m looking forward to reading it!