"If desire causes suffering, it may be because we do not desire wisely, or that we are inexpert at obtaining what we desire. Instead of hiding our heads in a prayer cloth and building walls against temptation, why not get better at fulfilling desire? Salvation is for the feeble, that's what I think. I don't want salvation, I want life, all of life, the miserable as well as the superb."
These words by Alobar, one of the protagonists of Jitterbug Perfume (1984), secretly reveal what this epic novel is all about. Four intricately interwoven stories, themed around the pursuit of immortality and individualism, take us from ancient Bohemia (1000 A.D.) and the slopes of the Himalaya to modern-day Seattle, New Orleans, and Paris. The narrative shifts back and forth between past and present, featuring an ex-king (Alobar) and the love of his life (Kudra), the foul-smelling God of the woods (Pan), a waitress with a college degree and a little secret (Priscilla), a small-time perfumery in New Orleans (Madame Devalier and her assistant V'lu), and an eccentric big-shot perfumer in Paris (Marcel LeFever; should there ever be plans for a movie, Christian Bale should get this part).
Without revealing the plot, I'll single out a remarkable observation made by one of the characters in the book. It's LeFever's brief for a perfume called New Wave:
"We are predicting that for many people the fascination with nostalgia — with a past reputed to be more simple, more honest, more natural than the present — will soon subside. [...] For the avant-garde, and for those who will flock to join it, LeFever is developing New Wave, a truly modern scent — sharp, hard-edged, assertive, unisexual, urbane, unromantic, nonmysterious, cool, light, elegant, and wholly synthetic" (p. 69)
It instantly reminded me of an old cK One (1994) press kit I once owned. Not that Calvin Klein would ever share LeFever's thoughts on his forthcoming release ("what you don't know is how boring and, ultimately, frightening I am finding this scent. I slept last night with New Wave on my pillowcase, and my dreams were totalitarian nightmares"), but the brief looks so convincing, one almost wonders if the author had a crystal ball on his desk. As other instances in the book show, Robbins handled the perfume motif with great care.
Jitterbug Perfume is a hilarious fantasy tale, revolving around the quest for (and questions about) eternal life, sex, individualism, and more sex. Of course this is just the tip of the iceberg: expect a wonderful tale about fragrance lovers, fragrance haters, an almost empty perfume bottle, and beets, lots of beets. In terms of atmosphere, Robbins' book stands in stark contrast with Süskind's austere and gloomy Perfume; it's also less encyclopedic on perfume-related matters than the latter. But simply calling it 'hilarious' wouldn't do the book justice: there's great tenderness in the love story between Alobar and Kudra, the sort you just don't want to miss. Jitterbug Perfume is one of those rare stories about life, all of life: the miserable as well as the superb.
Other titles by Tom Robbins (b. 1936) include Another Roadside Attraction, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Still Life with Woodpecker, and Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas.
New York: Bantam Books (1984)
Paperback reissue (2003), 342 pages