by Patrick Süskind
Published (edition): 2001 Knopf Publishing Group
First Published: 1985 (Germany)
Awards Won: World Fantasy Award, PEN Translation Prize
Notes: English translation by John E. Woods
My rating: 5 out of 5
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer isn't the sort of book that will be everyone's cup of tea. What book is? But this book is likely to polarize its readership into the "loved it completely" camp and the "ugh...no thanks" group. I fall firmly into the former, as I found the story wonderful in so many ways.
I read a lot of unconventional fiction, including a lot of things that some folks might find disturbing or overly bizarre. I love it when an author surprises me, and it doesn't happen nearly often enough. Perfume was surprising, but not so much for the plot or characterization as for the language. The language of Perfume is unabashedly sensual. There isn't a single sexual situation in the book (barring one very strange event near the end which is not described in any sort of explicit detail but is only suggested), but nearly every line is verily dripping with descriptors, with wording so florid and visceral you can almost (pardon the wordplay) smell it. Clearly this is intentional, and Süskind has really done a bang-up job.
The story, at its heart, is something of a cross between a murder mystery (mainly from the perspective of the murderer, but with details coming in from outside his experience, as well, to fill in the gaps and bring the story to life) and a coming of age story, in that we follow Jean-Baptiste Grenouille from birth through formation to fruition. The sensuality comes through in the language used to convey two realities: (1) the intricacies and arcana of the perfumer's trade and (2) the strange yet rich and vast inner world of Grenouille, which is almost entirely built of scent - experiences of scent, memories of scent, fantasies of scent, dreams of scent...an olfactory landscape foreign to most humans, yet so completely familiar and intimate to Grenouille, a master alchemist truly in his element. It is also an unusual character study and something of a satire on several aspects of society.
With the caveat of stating that I am neither monstrous nor murderous, I can say that on some levels I relate to Grenouille. I have always related very strongly to scent, and I've always been a bit unusual in my ways of relating to the world. As such, it is hard not to like this fellow. But tragically, he knows nothing of conscience, little of human feeling, and there is something of the animal about him. He is ruled by his whims and compulsions, even as he is patient and resilient and devoted to his aims. He is not a good person...but neither is he a bad person, although he does some very bad things. He is a tragic figure for whom conventional societal mores simply have little application, other than as camouflage. He is horrifying. He is exemplary. He is shocking, and he is sad. There is something of the "noble savage" about him, as well. I envied his detachment from all that we define as "necessary" in life, even as I was miserable for his plight and disgusted by his actions.
The author has a near-magical ability to translate sensory data into written word. He also has a subtle sense of humor and a sly knack for satire. Although I did enjoy the movie adaptation, I feel it is these authorial strengths that the film was not able to fully convey, and thus the book is superior. Furthermore, the movie was less adept at illustrating Grenouille's inner world. (Although the film is still very good.)
I would highly recommend Perfume to anyone who loves language, as well as to those who enjoy mystery or crime fiction, subtle horror, mature fantasy (as the story does venture to the fantastical, especially in the end), or the esoteric jargon of specialty fields (such as wine connoisseurs and the like)...assuming one is not easily unsettled, as there are certainly parts some might consider "over-the-top". I consider this book a classic of modern literature and will surely read it again.