Booksmart: Forgotten Fiction (CLASSICS YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED): Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

May 20, 2008 at 4:37 pm

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
(By Patrick Suskind. First published 1985.)

Part sadomasochistic horror story, part murder mystery, wholly literary, “Perfume” is the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, born with no odor of his own but with a supernatural sense of smell. As an orphaned child, Grenouille wanders the reeking streets of 18th century Paris, absorbing innumerable scents, until one day he is irresistibly drawn to an odor of “pure beauty,” the scent that he realizes will provide the structure for ordering all others. Its source is an adolescent girl, whom Grenouille remorselessly murders in order to possess her essence.

In the course of his wanderings, he reminds us why the French invented perfume: because they had to. Grenouille goes to work for several renowned perfumers, revealing a genius for creating fragrances of unsurpassed allure, for which he gets no credit even as he makes his masters rich men. While the freakish Grenouille is facile at hiding his contempt for humanity, he still sometimes sequesters himself in caves and other cavernous crannies.

Eventually, he ends up in Grasse, to this day the center of the perfume industry. Here he learns how to distill the scents of objects, animals and humans. In his pursuit of these essences, Grenouille grows daily more ruthless and perverse. Suskind’s forte is his exploration of the dark, irrational underside of the Age of Reason.

Never before has historical fiction relied so much on the sense of smell to convey what life in another century was like. “Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will,” the narrator tells us. “The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.” —Mary Welp