How is it possible to write about scents for over two hundred page?. Most authors tire after a couple of adjectives but Süskind seems an expert on the situation. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is defined as a literary, historical fantasy novel but it subverts all typical genre norms.
The novel is set in 18th century France, a period of conflict and war. The protagonist is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. His mother caught and tried for infanticide, it was difficult to find people to accept baby Grenouille. He gave people the creeps!
We briefly follow him grow up, watch other children try to kill him in his sleep as he causes so much anxiety. He is not a good looking child. He spends a lot of time in nature, within the dirt. Society thinks he’s evil and they wouldn’t be wrong — he is arguably the antichrist! Grenouille goes around the city trying to capture all the scents.
It is not until he meets his first victim that he knows there is more than just those scents that loiter in the air. They can also be made. He is barely a teen when he is lured in by the scent of an adolescent girl. He wants the scent so much that he kills her and tries to preserve it.
Impressing the perfumer, young Grenouille becomes his apprentice. Trying to create and learn every scent. One sniff and he knows the ingredients and scent off by heart. Nonetheless, this perfumer does not have all the tools Grenouille believes he needs. He becomes sick after he figures this out.
Eventually, when he is old enough, Grenouille is dismissed. And his hatred for humanity brings him to a mountain where he lives in solitude for the duration of the war. After we follow Grenouille to the place where he will commit his next twenty-five murders. And of course to one of the most bizarre endings that I still think about every day since I finished the book.
There was one disappointment I had with this book and I’ll get it out the way. And warning, a spoiler! I was expecting the victims to be killed by perfume. Instead, they are killed by a perfumer. I was intrigued to see how the murder could be committed by the scent of perfume and would have liked to have seen this executed. But Grenouille is the anti-christ so I guess I should have expected his brutish murders.
Süskind beautifully brings light to natural scents — like sweat. They are just as complex and beautiful as those constructed artificially. It is the natural scents that are the most powerful. Süskind allows for scents like sweat to be normalised and appreciated which I think is an idea that needs to be enforced on society.
There is more to this book than scents though, and more than the murders. There are questions of morality. Questions of social norms. Grenouille is not a good person, from birth you can see he is not innocent. Nonetheless, the book does question how much of Grenouille’s actions could be the condition of the way he was treated.
First, his mother was killed, what effect would that have on a child? Then children attempted to kill him many times. He lived as a hermit and didn’t enter society until halfway through his life. If society treated him better, would he have gone about things differently? Could he have found love in humanity?
What genre is the book? Supposedly fantasy, it does warp some of the historical dimensions and I did find myself wondering if such a person could exist. I read an article once that said there are so many natural scents in the world we cannot smell because we are used to them. Grenouille obliviously cannot smell himself, but besides that, he can smell everything. He knows the formula and he can track it from a distance. Some people do have better scent than others, but his obsession with scents seems unearthly.
This book is no doubt a classic but why is not talked about more? Perfume defies all genre boundaries and has some of the most beautiful imagery. Besides the brutal murders, I think it is a book for most people: for the fantasy lovers, the mystery lovers and historical lovers.