Sunday, November 4, 2012

Charnel House No. 5: A Review of Patrick Suskind's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Title: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Author: Patrick Süskind
Edition: Hardcover (Alfred A. Knopf, 1986)
Pages: 255
How I Came by This Book: The copy that I actually read (a paperback that I bought at a library sale) is gone now, donated along with just short of 200 other books. The copy that I'm using for this review (almost a year after I originally read it) is a hardcover edition that my library had.

About the Author: Patrick Süskind was born in Ambach, near Munich, in 1949. After a problem with his hands made it impossible for him to pursue his ambitions as a concert pianist, Süskind enrolled in the University of Munich, where he studied medieval and modern history. His first play, The Double Bass, written in 1980, became an international success, performed in Germany, Switzerland, at the Edinburgh Festival, in London, and most recently at the New Theatre in Brooklyn. Mr. Süskind lives and writes in Munich.

Synopsis: The year is 1738; the place, Paris. A baby is born under a fish-monger's bloody table in a marketplace, and abandoned. Orphaned, passed over to the monks as a charity case, already there is something in the aura of the tiny infant that is unsettling. No one will look after him; he is somehow too demanding, and, even more disturbing, something is missing: as his wet nurse tries to explain, he doesn't smell the way babies should smell; indeed he has no smell at all.

Slowly, as we watch Jean-Baptiste Grenouille cling stubbornly to life, we begin to realize that a monster is growing before our eyes. With mounting unease, yet hypnotized, we see him explore his powers and their effect on the world around him. For this dark and sinister boy who has no smell himself possesses an absolute sense of smell, and with it he can read the world to discover the hidden truths that elude ordinary men. He can smell the very composition of objects, and their history, and where they have been; he has no need of the light, and darkness is not dark to him, because noting can mask the odors of the universe.

As he leaves childhood behind and comes to understand his terrible uniqueness, his obsession becomes the quest to identify, and then to isolate, the most perfect scent of all, the scent of life itself.

At first, he hones his powers, learning the ancient arts of perfume-making until the exquisite fragrances he creates are the rage of Paris, and indeed Europe. Then, secure in his mastery of these means to an end, he withdraws into a strange and agonized solitude, waiting, dreaming, until the morning when wakes, ready to embark on his monstrous quest: to find and extract from the most perfect living creatures--the most beautiful young virgins in the land--that ultimate perfume which alone can finally make him, too, fully human. As his trail leads him, at an ever-quickening pace, from his savage exile to the shores of the Mediterranean and then back to Paris, we are caught up in a rising storm of terror and mortal sensual conquest until the frenzy of his final triumph explodes in all its horrifying consequences.

Told with dazzling narrative brilliance and the haunting power of a grown-up fairy tale, Perfume marks the debut in English of a most remarkable novelist.

Review: Sometimes I feel like blurb writers are wanna-be book reviewers. Hell, maybe they are all book reviewers in their spare time. I don't really know. All I know is that sometimes the synopses given on book covers are like books themselves. They leave people like me wondering what exactly I should say that hasn't been said. I mean, look at that. That's a pretty decent retelling of, you know, everything that happened in the book. Sure, there are details missing, but the basics are all there. I hate just jumping into a review without at least saying something about it as an introduction. Now I'm not sure what to say. It'll probably pale in comparison to that blurb up there.

Let me try to sum all of that up:

There's a man named Jean-Baptiste who has no scent of his own but who can recognize the smell of everything. Fish. People. Doorknobs. Lock him in a dark room and hold up a dinglehopper and he'd be able to tell you what it was, who had used it, and what the person in the room next door had eaten for lunch three days ago without even breaking a sweat.

Not pictured: a creepy Frenchman who can smell what's in your liver.

He comes to realize that because he has no scent, people are creeped out by him (although if you ask me, there's quite a lot about Jean-Baptiste that's pretty freaky). He spends a good portion of his life working for perfumeries and honing his skills so that he can make essence of dirt or puppy dog or poop or virginal beauty in order to eventually reach his goal of finding a scent that he can wear to make him feel like a human. On the way he kills a bunch of women and bottles their scents. Yeah, it's that kind of novel.

I loved the uniqueness of this book. Our main character is a man so reprehensible and sketchy that you hate him and yet you can't help but want to know what happens to him. Süskind's writing is superb, which could also be attributed to the translation, although after a while the description of different scents drags on and on. And on. The plot is unlike anything I've ever read and, while I didn't like the ending or the slower bits, the story was so new and daring that I ended up loving the book as a whole.

Perfume is highly disturbing. Jean-Baptiste has no soul, no remorse. He is a merciless killer who values odors more than people. Parts of the book were absolutely disgusting and there's nothing redeeming about the main character to lessen the blow. This is not a happy book. From beginning to end, the reader is thrust into a dark world where anger, disgust, and an amoral passion for killing are driving forces behind the actions of the protagonist. Some people might not be able to get through the book; those who do will be torn between loving the quality of the novel and hating the character and his actions.

I'm giving Perfume: The Story of a Murderer four out of five Gabriels. There were a lot of descriptive passages about perfumes that got a bit boring after a while and I didn't like some of the elements of the plot (namely, his period of solitude and the ending). If you're looking for a dark and strangely different read, this book is highly recommended.



  1. I read this last year (or was it the year before?) and I'm still not sure how I feel about it. One the one hand I agree it was well written, but I'm not sure how I feel about the plot. The concept was interesting and unique, and Jean-Baptiste is crazy creepy but I'm not sure how I feel about how it played out. And then there's the ending... Maybe I'll give it a re-read one of these days.

    1. I agree with you on that. I thought the ending was a bit "WTF?????" At the same time, though, I'm not sure how else it could have ended, you know? I mean, he had done what he wanted to do. This was the most "logical" step for a crazy psychopath. Maybe. I dunno. LOL

  2. Love this review! Had me chuckling over the dinglehopper.

    Sounds like a disturbing book...I think I'll pass.

    1. Glad you liked it! I personally enjoyed coming up with the title of it. :)

      And yeah, it's an insanely disturbing book. It's a decent novel but I can honestly say you won't be missing much.