Saturday, November 3, 2012

Review: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Book Info: Genre: Literary Fiction
Reading Level: Adult
Recommended for: Those who enjoy dark, strange, twisted, yet lushly beautiful writing

Please note: I picked up and first read this book several years ago in the early aughts; I wanted to watch the movie subsequently made of this book, but wished to re-read it first to refresh my memory about the book itself. I’m not aware of having written a review for this book the first time around, as at the time I was not writing a review for everything I read.

Synopsis: 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

My Thoughts: What you have to understand about this book is this: it is dark. It is ugly. It is full of amazingly horrible things. This book is a love-it or hate-it book, and I have seen very few middle-of-the-road impressions of it. It is so extreme that it engenders extreme opinions. And me? I loved it! The descriptions are so incredibly vivid – you could smell the vile putrescence of Paris. “The rivers stank, the marketplaces stank, the churches stank, it stank beneath the bridges and in the palaces. The peasant stank as did the priest, the apprentice as did his master’s wife, the whole of the aristocracy stank, even the king himself stank, stank like a rank lion, and the queen like an old goat, summer and winter.

You could see how horrible everything was, but at the same time be made aware that those living there – were just living. Take Grenouille’s mother, for instance. “Grenouille’s mother, however, perceived the odor neither of the fish nor of the corpses, for her sense of smell had been utterly dulled, besides which her belly hurt, and the pain deadened all susceptibility of sensate impressions... and [she], who was still a young woman, barely in her mid-twenties, and who still was quite pretty and had almost all her teeth in her mouth and some hair on her head and – except for gout and syphilis and a touch of consumption – suffered from no serious disease, who still hoped to live a while yet, perhaps a good five or ten years, and perhaps even to marry one day and as the honorable wife of a widower with a trade or some such to bear real children... Grenouille’s mother wished that it were already over.” Amazing! This perfectly captures the ennui of Paris, I think.

Grenouille is a sort of wunderkind, in that he is extraordinarily tough – “He had a tough constitution. Whatever has survived his own birth in a garbage can is not so easily shoved back out of this world again... In the course of his childhood he survived the measles, dysentery, chicken pox, cholera, a twenty-foot fall into a well, and a scalding with boiling water poured over his chest.... He was as tough as a resistant bacterium and as content as a tick sitting quietly on a tree and living off a tiny drop of blood plundered years before.” – and in that he has a phenomenal ability to differentiate scents. “At age six he had completely grasped his surroundings olfactorily. There was not an object in Madame Gaillard’s house, no place along the northern reaches of the rue de Charonne, no person, no stone, tree, bush, or picket fence, no spot be it ever so small, that he did not know by smell, could not recognize again by holding its uniqueness firmly in his memory.” However, he has no scent himself.

Eventually he creates a scent to make himself smell human, but then decides to improve upon it. “He would be able to create a scent that was not merely human, but superhuman, a angel’s scent, so indescribably good and vital that whoever smelled it would be enchanted and with his whole heart would have to love him, Grenouille, the bearer of that scent. Yes, that was what he wanted – they would love him as they stood under the spell of his scent, not just accept him as one of them, but love him to the point of insanity, of self-abandonment, they would quiver with delight, scream, weep for bliss, they would sink to their knees just as if under God’s cold incense, merely to be able to smell him, Grenouille... For people could close their eyes to greatness, to horrors, to beauty, and their ears to melodies or deceiving words. But they could not escape scent.

Grenouille lives … exists... in a state of barely there, at least until he first smells the scent that will send him on his lifelong quest. Then... ah, then he is obsessed. “Never before in his life had he known what happiness was. He knew at most some very rare states of numbed contentment. But now he was quivering with happiness and could not sleep for pure bliss. It was as if he had been born a second time; no, not a second time, the first time, for until now he had merely existed like an animal with a most nebulous self-awareness. but after today, he felt as if he finally knew who he really was: nothing less than a genius... He had found the compass for his future life. And like all gifted abominations, for whom some external event makes straight the way down into the chaotic vortex of their souls, Grenouille never again departed from what he believed was the direction fate had pointed him... He must become a creator of scents... the greatest perfumer of all time.” Scents are the only things that matter to him: “That scented soul, that ethereal oil, was in fact that best thing about matter, the only reason for his interest in it. the rest of the stupid stuff – the blossoms, leaves, rind, fruit, color, beauty vitality, and all those other useless qualities – were of no concern to him. they were mere husk and ballast, to be disposed of.” His misanthropic nature is further expressed once he leaves Paris. “ became clear to Grenouille for the first time that for eighteen years their compacted human effluvium had oppressed him like air heavy with an imminent thunderstorm. Until now he had thought that it was the world in general he wanted to squirm away from. But it was not the world, it was the people in it. You could live, so it seemed, in this world, in this world devoid of humanity.

This book is not just about Grenouille, of course – it is about a time, and about Grenouille as a product of that time. It was a time of great change, a time of revolution, a time when the long-established way of things was being overturned. “What did people need with a new perfume every season? Was that necessary? the public had been very content before with violet cologne and simple floral bouquet that you changed a soupçon every ten years or so... Or this insanity for speed. What was the need for all these new roads being dug up everywhere, and these new bridges? … What was the advantage of being in Lyon in a week?... Or crossing the Atlantic, racing to American in a month – as if people hadn’t got along without that continent for thousands of years... People even traveled to Lapland... The very attitude was perverse.” Of course, this general attitude could easily fit an older, established person’s thinking about any specific time you want to discuss. Also, the 18th century, like many centuries, ended in war. “Meanwhile war raged in the world outside, a world war. Men fought in Silesia and Saxony, in Hanover and the Low Countries, in Bohemia and Pomerania. The king’s troops died in Hesse and Westphalia on the Balearic Islands, in India, on the Mississippi and in Canada, if they had not already succumbed to typhoid on the journey. the war robbed a million people of their lives, France of its colonial empire, and all the warring nations of so much money that they finally decided, with heavy hearts, to end it.

Additionally, it was a time of many beliefs that to us, from the distance of centuries, appear to be nothing but superstition. Yet, at the same time, fear reduces us all to a similar state of suspicion, such as when young virgins in Grasse begin being murdered. “People suspected the gypsies...however, no gypsies around at the time, not a one, near or far... For lack of gypsies, people decided to suspect the Italian migrant workers. But there weren’t any Italians around either...Finally the wig-makers came under suspicion... To no avail. Then it was the Jews...then the monks of the Benedictine cloister... then the Cistercians, then the Freemasons, then the lunatics from the Charité, then the charcoal burners, then the beggars, and last but not least the nobility, in particular the marquis of Cabris, for he had already been married three times and organized – so it was said – orgiastic black masses in his cellars, where he drank the blood of virgins...

I was astonished to find this opinion about the state of an infant’s soul, given by a priest no less: “An infant is not yet a human being; it is a prehuman being and does not yet possess fully developed soul.” Yet infanticide is serious enough to warrant the death penalty, as one sees when it is discovered Grenouille’s mother would have left him to die as she did her first four babies. One wonders if modern pro-life activists with their “a child is a human as soon as it is created” ideas are aware of this amazing opinion of the 18th century Catholic church? But it’s not just the church with these thoughts. The perfumer, Baldini, thinks of children thus: “ of those unapproachable, incomprehensible, willful little prehuman creatures, who in their ostensible innocence think only of themselves, who want to subordinate the whole world to their despotic will, and would do it, too, if one let them pursue their megalomaniacal ways and did not apply the strictest pedagogical principles to guide them to a disciplined, self-controlled, fully human existence.

The ending is, of course, just as shocking as the entire story, and very strange, dark and twisted – then again, that describes generally the whole story. Not at all recommended for people who don’t have a bit of darkness lurking in their soul, but if you don’t mind dabbling into the darkness and want to enjoy some unbelievably beautiful and lush writing, definitely check out this book.

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