Author: Patrick Suskind, translated from the German by John E. Woods

2001, Vintage

Filed Under: Literary, Historical.


Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the protagonist of Patrick Suskind’s début novel  is arguably one of the most extraordinary characters in contemporary fiction. This extraordinariness, which lies in his unprecedented and enviable power of smell, is an evident manifestation of the author’s creative genius and is responsible for the immense readability of this novel. Suskind hooks the reader right from the start. The novel begins:

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. His story will be told here.

The initial couple of sentences are enough to convince the reader that there is so much of storytelling to be done. The words like ‘gifted’ and ‘abominable’ intrigue the reader whose curiosity is further increased with the mention of his gifts and ambitions which ‘were restricted to the domain that leaves no traces in history: to the fleeting realm of scent.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer was originally published in German as Das Parfum: Die Geschiechte eines Morders in 1985 and became an international bestseller. Since then it has been translated into several languages and has also been adapted as a film with the same title.  The novel tells the story of Grenouille’s quest to make the finest perfume in the world–and in the process of doing so he kills twenty-five virgin girls.

Suskind focuses on the sense of smell of most of his characters and the rest of their attributes are mainly left to the readers’ imagination. The narrative progresses not only through the description of events by the narrator who appears to be impartial but also through the thought processes of characters. All the details pertaining to the sense of smell are “shown” meticulously while the rest of the story is  “told.” This exposes the extraordinary inadequacy of human languages in expressing different smells. There are, as a friend suggests, only two kinds of smells: good smells and bad smells. We do not have names for smells of, say, almonds, curry, toilet, soap, and countless other things. Which makes it appropriate to say that the sense of smell has vastly been underestimated by human societies. To create a fictional character whose prime attribute is his sense of smell, something really difficult to relate to sensory perception, and make the story hugely readable is surely one of the most laudable characteristics of Suskind’s work.

Suskind’s treatment of his characters is very economical, which is to say that he does not hesitate in removing a character when he/she has done the job of progressing the narrative. Characters do not linger when the focus of the narrative is away from them. This not only helps him retain the attention of the readers and but also forces them to concentrate more carefully on the protagonist. For instance, when Grenouille left Baldini with one hundred unique formulas of new perfumes he “fell asleep and awoke no more in his life.” And also Taillade-Espinasse “disappeared into the blizzard” when Grenouille left him to learn the techniques of production of scent.

Apart from the extraordinary sense of smell, Grenouille’s atheism and immorality are notable. Scentless objects and the abstract ideas  remain totally incomprehensible for him.

He could not retain them, confused them with one another, and even as an adult used them unwillingly and often incorrectly: justice, conscience, God, joy, responsibility, humility, gratitude, etc. what these were meant to express remained a mystery to him.

Even though he did not understand any of these abstractions, he understood it well that the people around him made sense of them. That was why he swore “by all the saints, the poor soul of his mother, and his own honour” when Baldini asked him to before his departure. There was no notion of God in his mind and to him He was what and how the church smelled. “How miserable this God smelled” and “How ridiculously bad the scent that this God let spill from Him.” His atheism and immorality  proves important as he unscrupulously murders several young  girls.

In all, Grenouille murders twenty-five virgin girls apart from the girl whom he had murdered earlier, hence the subtitle of the novel. Yet somehow Grenouille as a murderer is left a bit underdeveloped. When Grenouille commits his first murder:

She was so frozen with terror at the sight of him that he had plenty of time to put his hands to her throat. She did not attempt to cry out, did not budge, did not make the least motion to defend herself. He, in turn, did not look at her, did not see her delicate, freckled face, her red lips, her large sparkling green eyes, keeping his eyes closed tight as he strangled her, for he had only one concern – not to lose the least trace of her scent.

Here the strangling appears unprovoked and contrived. Why and how did his concern for not loosing the least trace of her scent make him strangle her? The co-relation which should have been there between these two things is missing. However, this lack of co-relation has been taken care of in the film adaptation. Tom Tykwer, the director of the film, has tried to justify Grenouille’s  killing the girl. He is shown putting his hand on the mouth and the nose of the girl so that her screams do not catch the attention of the passers-by. Grenouille’s murderous justifications and actions are further blurred as he murders twenty-four girls. We are told that the bodies of young girls are found and the narrator does not state explicitly that the murders have been committed by Grenouille and more importantly how.

Having said that, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer remains one of the chefs-d’oeuvre of contemporary fiction.

Similar Reads: The Story of Mr Sommer and The Pigeon (both by Patrick Suskind)