Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer – Patrick Süskind

March 18, 2017 § Leave a comment

First published in the German in 1985
Translated into the English by John E. Woods in 1986


So much of this book was already in my head, even before I started reading the book. I still remember the first time I heard about this story where a man murders women to make a perfume out of their scents. My partner was telling me about a film she had just watched, about this man who kills women because he wants to get their bodily smells and produce some kind of wonder perfume, and told me that she thought I would find the premise interesting.

I did. She knows me well.

Then, of course, I found out that the film was adapted from a novel, and being the “book before movie” kind of person I am, I decided to first read the book before watching the film. This was almost 10 years ago.

Since then, I’ve heard so many people around me talking about either the film or the book, encouraging me to make the time to finally give it a go. But for some odd reason, the book just sat there on my shelves looking pretty (the 2010 Penguin Books edition that I have has a most sensual-looking cover), but it never spoke to me. It never yelled out, the way some books do, for me to grab it. It quietly waited for me to seek it out.

The first sentence of Perfume did me in.

In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages.

From there, the book just soared, gliding so easily through the life of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, it was almost like water gently rolling off smooth rocks.

Given that the man in the story, Grenouille, has the most powerful sense of smell in the world, a lot of time was spent describing how everything smelt in 18th century France. And perhaps because we are more used to long descriptions of what we can see, compared to how the air around us smells, there was a certain allure in the words. I could feel myself willing myself to smell those scents that Süskind named, that Grenouille could pick out and identify with as much ease as breathing in.

Grenouille didn’t become a murderer until almost halfway through the book, which was a little surprising for me. I had thought initially, given how much I had heard about his crazed pursuit of the perfect scent, that the murders would take up a major chunk of the novel. And under usual circumstances, when my expectations and the real thing don’t match up, my experience of the book will be marred by this difference. Not so for Perfume. I almost forgot that he was supposed to be a murderer, so I wasn’t looking or waiting for it. I just kept on reading, wanting to know what he would do and learn next.

Finishing this book, I didn’t feel a deep sense of loss, or some very strong emotion. There was a certain kind of sadness, a quiet pity, for lack of better word, that resonated from his story, but it wasn’t so much because I could empathise with him. He was a murderer. He did some very very terrible things. But unlike Lolita, where Humbert Humbert almost felt like he was trying to get your sympathy and understanding, Perfume simply told Grenouille’s story, without any other motive or intention, other than to tell it.

Perhaps, one of the strongest things that I came away with from Perfume, is the sudden awareness of how much of the world is unknown to me, and will most likely stay that way. And it gets a little scary, a little bizarre. A little unsettling.


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