Whenever you tell a non-perfume person that you love perfume, the first question they usually ask is : “Have you read Perfume?”
The answer is, naturally: “Of course“.
How could I not have? Patrick Süskind’s novel, ingeniously centered around an acutely sensitized triptych of the olfactory : an odourless anti-hero with by far the most advanced olfactive apparatus in the world; the utterly foul stench of humanity (hilariously disgusting from the off), and the contrasting beauty of perfume, is a work of utter brilliance, translated into 49 languages and a seller of over 20 million copies. Darkly, almost savagely comic, it is an involving and fast paced sensorial thriller that enters unchartered and unrivaled territory in being exclusively written from the vantage point of smell ; a sense-drenching immersion into the world of the olfactory, so richly and sensually written that it is almost deranging.
This must be why my re-reading of the book over the last few days is only the second in my life: it is almost just too much. Having spent an entire day marinating in the obsessional mania of the protagonist, Jean Baptiste Grenouille, the greatest nose in history, a total psychopath who lives entirely through his nose and is oblivious to all else, I almost felt insidiously infected with the pungent madness of not only the character, but also the author.
In fact, taking the book down from the shelf, I had not quite remembered just how quixotically intense and horrific the story really is: exhilarating in the extreme, but also quite horrible; disturbing. It is strange how you forget key details with books and films, just as we do with events in real life: I remembered it more romantically – red-haired maidens and rose petals in Grasse, possibly because I was just casually sweeping through it as a floppy haired university student in Rome; probably also because of all the exquisite detail the writer goes into of perfume making in the south of France and Paris; the techniques of distillation and enfleurage, the flood of ingredients, all the flowers; the pomades, the powders, the concretes, the absolutes; it is gorgeous to read – forgetting the deep levels of insanity that the killer – born with no smell, and therefore compelled to create the most magnificent scent for himself – descends into. Süskind captures this derangement so well, delivering us Grenouille’s corrupt and splintered, monomanic mind and logic so lucidly that with the incessant, breathlessness of the prose, which carries us along like a tidal wave of madness, we are almost in danger of surrendering to insanity ourselves.
The entire novel is actually rather nasty. Despite the florid sensuality, a rather hollow nihilism. And it leaves something of a bitter aftertaste. No human is rendered pleasantly. All are grasping, greedy; there is no goodness. The ending, the last paragraph, is disappointing, something of a squib compared to the torrent that comes before it (I often find this with literature: the perfect ending is a very rare thing indeed). Cruelly sardonic, full of hatred for humanity, it is difficult to tell sometimes whether the triple-distilled misanthropy in this fable comes from the alienated protagonist and his contempt of the stench of other people, all people (except virginal maidens of a particular physical type) or from the author himself – Suskind has long lived as a recluse, either in Munich, or somewhere near a French lake, never allowing interviews nor photographs, holing himself away from the world, which surely speaks volumes). Cascading, undulating, fragrant (or reeking) in every paragraph, gripping throughout, Perfume is an inimitable meisterwerk that fully deserves its reputation, while also being so odiferously potent and sadistically overwhelming that I am sure it might be another few decades before I take it down from the shelf again for another reading.