It's never too late to read a good novel; but if you haven't read Süskind's Perfume yet, now is the time to do so. A combination of breathtaking suspense and unparalleled olfactory prose, this literary debut was one of the greatest worldwide bestsellers in the mid '80s. The eponymous movie, directed by Tom Tykwer, will premiere in a few months. This may be your last chance to apply your personal, unbiased imagination to the story.
Perfume is the horrifying tale of an 18th century Parisian orphan, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, whose primal curse — his unhuman lack of body odor — is paradoxically contrasted by a superhuman sense of smell. While the 'demonic' absence of a personal smell makes him a social outcast, Grenouille's interior world is completely dominated by olfactory perceptions: the boy thinks, dreams, lives in terms of scent. Throughout his childhood, he avidly memorizes the fragrant landscapes surrounding him; in a desperate attempt to regain his own humanity, he becomes obsessed with the idea of creating the most sublime perfume imaginable. As a perfume apprentice, he quickly reveals his uncanny talent for fragrant compositions; but conventional methods will not lead him to his ultimate goal. For his definitive masterpiece, Grenouille resorts to dramatic sacrifices.
I have to admit that my first encounter with Perfume, more than ten years ago, can't be described as love at first sight. I'm not a fan of the horror genre, and I found the opening scenes in the book rather revolting. But when I gave it a second chance, several years later, I succumbed to the captivating force of the book: I simply couldn't put it down. Even now, when I browse through my copy of the Dutch translation, I'm tempted to go back to page one, and read the whole thing from cover to cover. So what is this fascination all about?
First of all, Perfume is based on proper historical research. Whether the author describes a particular setting (the streets of 18th century Paris, the opulent interior of a Parisian boudoir) or a specific method in perfumery (maceration, enfleurage), everything is described in minute detail, and with great accuracy where possible. Despite it being a fictional work with highly surreal elements, Süskind made sure to get his facts straight. I like that.
The author's striking olfactory descriptions are another distinctive trait of this novel: few writers truly master this specialism. You can almost smell the fish market, the tannery, or the perfumed wigs as you turn the pages. The smells described in Perfume are an integral part of the story; more than that, they represent the main character's relation to lust, love, hate, and redemption. No wonder people were skeptical about a screenplay adaptation.
And finally, as with any good book, the plot has a rather surprising twist to it. You know it's the story of a murderer, but you'll have to read it until the last page to appreciate its complexity. So if you haven't done that yet, here's my advice: don't wait for the movie, no matter how good it turns out to be. You'll have plenty of time to watch that later.
Patrick Süskind studied medieval and modern history in Germany and France, and worked as a screenwriter in the 1980's. He doesn't do interviews; he spends his time between Munich and Paris, leading a reclusive life.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Available from various publishers
Original title: Das Parfum, Die Geschichte eines Mörders (1985)
Update: see Marcello's review of the new Perfume movie directed by Tom Tykwer.