13 July 2017

Review #626: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“A woman's perfume tells more about her than her handwriting. ”

----Christian Dior

Patrick Süskind, a late German writer and screenwriter's internationally, critically acclaimed and an award-winning novel Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Mörders translated into English with the title, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer The German novel set in the backdrop of 18th century France that rocked the whole world with its intensity, level of fantasy and surrealism, historical realism, sensuality and scents surrounding around a young man, with a god-gifted talented to identify the subtle and underlying scents of worldly things as well as of human beings.


In the slums of eighteenth-century France, the infant Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born with one sublime gift: an absolute sense of smell. As a boy, he lives to decipher the odors of Paris, and apprentices himself to a prominent perfumer who teaches him the ancient art of mixing precious oils and herbs.

But Grenouille's genius is such that he is not satisfied to stop there, and he becomes obsessed with capturing the smells of objects such as brass doorknobs and fresh-cut wood. Then one day he catches a hint of a scent that will drive him on an ever-more-terrifying quest to create the "ultimate perfume"—the scent of a beautiful young virgin.

Told with dazzling narrative brilliance, Perfume is a hauntingly powerful tale of murder and sensual depravity.

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is left abandoned in the back of a fish stall, in the early 18th century Paris, right after his birth by his own mother. Luckily Grenouille is survived by the common people and later, he is adopted by a benefactor, who runs an orphanage, where he grew up with other orphans and bastards like him. At a very tender age, he discovered that he has no scent of his own but has a god gifted nose that can identify scents of any and every worldly things, hence he finds a job as an apprentice of a popular Parisian perfumer, Baldini after his stint at the tannery, where he survived a near death experience. But this talent of making and mixing and finally reproducing the best and rarest smell in the world, the smell of a young female virgin for which he had to shed a lot of human as well as animal blood. Although gradually he earned his fame, but this haunting journey of his soon came to an end when he is caught and imprisoned for killing more than twenty female teenagers, but once again, his unique talent saved the day and his prison sentence when he is set free, only later to be butchered and eaten by an enraged mob of Paris.

This hauntingly, chilling and sensual novel holds a subtle power to arouse all the five senses of its readers, although the book has it own flaws. Yet if the readers manages to look past it, then the novel can turn out to be something scandalously enchanting, underlying with magic, murder and mayhem. A psychologically flawed protagonist, touring and journeying across France in search of beautiful smells that haunts him day and night, but he is in dire need to kill human beings and animals in order to recreate them. May not be the most original story line, but it has got layers of historical elements and proof of a failing judiciary system in the early 18th century France. This young man's journey is not only terrifying but is also quite profound.

The writing is okay, yet the story line and the author cleverly has resonated so many underlying topics ranging from Bourgeois Liberal Revolution (the time period of the novel's setting) era's flaws, dark satire in the societal changes, the need of perfume in every household, the power and class struggle and many other socio-economic themes. The history is spot on, but what will irk up the readers is the vividness of the scenes that were mostly unnecessary at certain times. It is not easy to handle those graphic scenes, that were penned by the author with subtle emotions and more mechanically. The then Parisian flair from the novel will at times overwhelm its readers but most of the times, it will feel striking enough to lose themselves in its beauty as well as in its odors and beautiful smells. The pacing is bit slow, as there is too much details but then again, those details weren't so well portrayed.

The protagonist, Grenouille, lacks depth terribly, as the author has failed to depict the man with realism or even with slightest emotional insight. Thus Grenouille will only tease its readers with his journey and his magical power to sense and detect individual human and animal smells. But the readers can easily contemplate with Grenouille's struggle and desire to recreate the smells that he identifies amongst his fellow humans, especially amongst teenage girls. The author has failed drastically to decipher the explanation and the reason behind his protagonist's choices and irrational decisions to kill in order to reproduce human smells.

In a nutshell, this novel is enjoyable, but from an educational or intellectual point of view, the novel fails tragically.

Verdict: Not highly recommended. Yet it is hauntingly beautiful!

Author Info:
From 1968-1974 he studied medieval and modern history in Munich and Aix-en-Provence. In the '80s he worked as a screenwriter, for Kir Royal and Monaco Franze among others.
After spending the 1970s writing what he has characterized as “short unpublished prose pieces and longer un-produced screenplays”, Patrick Süskind was catapulted to fame in the 1980s by the monodrama Der Kontrabass [The Double Bass, 1981:], which became an instant success and a favourite of the German stage. In 1985 his status as literary wunderkind was confirmed with the publication of the novel Das Parfüm. Die Geschichte eines Mörders [Perfume. The Story of a Murderer:], which quickly topped the European best-seller list and eventually sold millions of copies worldwide.
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