A Tale of Obsession

Lurking on the fringes of the darkest corners of the world of literature are literary works that inspire horror, intimidation, fear, and, to some levels, foreboding. Painted in bold strokes and blunt words, they hold such gruesome tales that their reputations precede them. But this dark facade also belie profound and sad realities. Just like every other literary work, they are creative devices writers use to convey messages, albeit in a dark manner. Such is true in the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

German writer Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, The Story of a Murderer runs in the same vein. Most would definitely associate it with its graphic movie adaptation and sepulchral atmosphere but many a devout reader will remember the vivid and sinister images it evoked. The year was 1738. A baby boy was birthed by a mother who nearly killed him. The mother’s was convicted for infanticide and her execution left the young boy an orphan. Left to the care of Father Terrier, the young baby was name Jean-Baptiste Grenouille.

He was taken into the fold of foster homes but his feisty attitude and enigmatic personality was too much to handle. His peculiar physique also turned him into a pariah. As soon as they can rid of him, his guardians sent him to be apprenticed by the tanner. Beyond his reclusive nature is a remarkable olfactory sense which enables him to discern different odors, from the must subtle to the most complex. This powerful sense of smell enabled him to do a lot of things an ordinary human cannot. He is able to distinguish the different smells, even those that emanate from the grimy corners of Paris. To him, each thing, each person, has a unique smell that makes them easy to identify from a group.

“Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. 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.”

~ Patrick Süskind, Perfume, The Story of a Murderer

His hypersensitive smell soon brought him to a world he never expected to be a part of. From the slimy streets to the tedious tannery, he found himself in a luxurious perfumery and his genius for odor and aroma helped revive what was once a dying business. However, Grenouille wanted more than just the apprentice of an aging perfumer. His apprenticeship was the right platform he needed, an opportunity he sees would advance his ambitions. As he experiments on new scents, his destiny started to unravel and what unfolded was a sinister tale.

With the titular “the story of a murderer”, it can be easy to conclude and interpret how the story flows. Contrary to expectations, however, Perfume is more than just a suspense or a mystery tale. Brick by brick, Süskind created and developed the flawless profile of a murderer and a sociopath in Grenouille. Süskind created Grenouille’s psychological picture with clarity and acuity, easily making him one of the most recognizable names in contemporary literature. The mere mention of his name is enough to evoke powerful but unpleasant images.

But in creating the picture of a murderer, Süskind’s bold strokes also drew a portrait and a profile that is a stark contrast of the first image of Grenouille. He painted the picture of someone who is determined and hardworking. Whilst he used opportunities to his advantage, the readers also see a man who is striving hard to reach his goals. He was nonchalant to the obstacles he had to overcome. He has the ability to focus on a goal; he never wavers, toiling even harder in the presence of difficulties. Under a different lens, Grenouille is a man an ordinary person can aspire for – hardworking, driven and focused.

Certainly, Grenouille is no ordinary person. He has an otherworldly skill which has roused in him an insatiable impulse to possess any smell he likes for himself. With indomitable conviction and tenacity, he labors hard to extract these seductive smells directly from its origin, eventually making a perfume out of it. In the process of extraction, he remorselessly destroy the source. He had but one goal: to obtain the scent that rivets him, turn it into a perfume, and save it in a vial.

“For people could close their eyes to greatness, to horrors, to beauty, and their ears to melodies or deceiving words. But they couldn’t escape scent. For scent was a brother of breath. Together with breath it entered human beings, who couldn’t defend themselves against it, not if they wanted to live. And scent entered into their very core, went directly to their hearts, and decided for good and all between affection and contempt, disgust and lust, love and hate. He who ruled scent ruled the hearts of men.”

~ Patrick Süskind, Perfume, The Story of a Murderer

Perhaps symbolical, the most beautiful smell was one of youth, purity and innocence. The virginal scent arouses a different sense of madness in him. When he finally found the scent he wanted to acquire the most, he waited patiently in the background, waiting for it to mature. When it was finally time for him to “harvest” the scent, to his disappointment, he realized that it wasn’t what he dreamed it was. In this way, Grenouille was reduced once again to an ordinary human being.

Beyond Grenouille and his obsessions, Süskind created an equally vivid backdrop. He tickled the nose, and the imagination with his description of the perfume industry. He wrote of the intricate processes involved and also subtly highlighted its role. In doing so, he created a vast playground upon which he directed the story of Grenouille. Süskind skillfully translated his extensive research on the industry in his work. Perfume is, in a way, the perfect superlative for the nose. It is a powerful device in capturing one’s attention and imagination.

Two things stirred the narrative forward – Süskind’s evocative writing and Grenouille. Grenouille is a unique and complex character. He is a recluse but he works hard for what he wants. At extremes, he is obsessive but he has a drive that, on any other day, would have been admirable. He is more known for being the titular murderer, a sinister character. Despite this seemingly polarizing portrayal, at the heart of it, Grenouille is just like any of us. He gets disappointed. He loses focus. He uses his skills to survive and progress in a world that is increasingly being filled with prejudices.

Grenouille is a memorable character but his story was further enhanced by Süskind’s brand of literature. His writing brought out both sides of the proverbial coin, making him shine whilst changing the complexion of the story at will. The characterization was strong and powerful, the writing even more so. At times, however, the transitions fell flat, with the story even hitting a plateau in the middle part before picking up pace again in the latter parts. It has, nonetheless, an upbeat pace reminiscent of a thriller that keeps the reader at the edge of his seat.

“He possessed the power. He held it in his hand. A power stronger than the power of money or the power of terror or the power of death: the invincible power to command the love of mankind. There was only one thing that power could not do: it could not make him able to smell himself.”

~ Patrick Süskind, Perfume, The Story of a Murderer

Perfume, The Story of a Murderer doesn’t reduce itself into a mundane horror story. It may have careened towards the darker side but it also inspired a unique reading journey. Ironically, it is a pleasant deviation from a world that is brimming with rosy and glowing tales. It is a rarity, not only because of its dark streaks but also because the story was related whilst exploring an underrated sense. In his own way, Süskind reminded the readers of the importance of the nose and the sense of smell.

Süskind wrote a magnetic tale, the horrific story of an abominable man. In doing so, he also challenged literary paradigm, which in itself is a rewarding endeavor. In Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, Süskind personified horror and fear. In Perfume, The Story of a Murderer he wrote a powerfully evocative and timeless story that created a deep impression on the grander scheme of things.

Rating

90%

Characters (30%) – 28%
Plot (30%) – 27%
Writing (25%) – 23%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

It has been nearly five years since I have first heard of Patrick Süskind’s literary sensation, Perfume, The Story of a Murderer. I initially thought that it was a biographical work but upon learning it was a fictional work, I was quick to add it to my growing TBR list. It took me years before I managed to purchase a copy of the year and nearly another year before I finally read it. So how do I describe the experience? Was the anticipation worth it? It was both worth it and not I guess. I was expecting for so much more and it did, on many levels, lived up to them. I guess the story was a little too short, the story ended too soon. I was so engaged that when the book ended, I was filled with pangs of regret.

Book Specs

Author: Patrick Süskind
Translator: John E. Woods
Publisher: Vintage International
Publishing Date: 2001
Number of Pages: 255
Genre: Magical Realism, Mystery

Synopsis

In the slums of 18th-century Paris a baby is born. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille clings to life with an iron will, growing into a dark and sinister young man who although he has no scent of his own, possesses an incomparable sense of smell. He apprentices himself to a perfumer and quickly masters the ancient art of mixing flowers, herbs, and oils. But his quest to create the “ultimate perfume” leads him to commit a series of brutal murders until no woman can feel safe as his final horrifying secret is revealed.

About the Author

Patrick Süskind was born on March 26, 1949 in Ambach, Bavaria, Germany.

He was born in a family of journalists – his father, Wilhelm Emanuel Süskind, was a writer and journalist and his brother Martin E. Süskind was also a journalist. Süskind attended school at  Holzhausen, a small Bavarian village. At the University of Munich, he pursued medieval and modern history but he never graduated.

Süskind found early success as a playwright, with Der Kontrabaß (The Double Bass, 1981) being his first major breakthrough. Written in 1980, it was an international sensation, performed more than 500 times across the world, in Germany, in Switzerland, at the Edinburgh Festival, in London, and at the New Theatre in Brooklyn. During the 1980s, he gained recognition as a screenwriter. His screenplay of Rossini won him the 1996 Screenplay Prize of the German Department for Culture.

He also ventured into the world of writing, debuting in 1985 as a novelist with the publication of Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines MördersPerfume: The Story of a Murderer). It was an acclaimed bestseller that was also adapted into the movie screen. He has also published a score of novellas and a collection of essays.

He currently lives in Munich.