Well this was… an experience. And I don’t know that it was a good one? It’s kind of funny, me reading a novel that is so focused on scent and a man with an extraordinary sense of smell, when I myself have an absolutely horrid sense of smell. Honestly, it has to be incredibly strong for me to ever notice any kind of scent (this started happening when I suddenly developed allergic polyps in my nose a few years ago, but anyways). But this book definitely made me worried about the way that I personally smell, now. And whenever I go to play basketball and the gym stinks I am suddenly convinced that the smell is coming from me and I just can’t smell it all the time for some reason… But I digress! Let’s get on with the book.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer follows the life and work of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a young man whose sense of smell is unparalleled. It’s like, a Daredevil-level sense, wherein he can basically see in the dark, smell every individual person and their emotions, know the different components of every object, etc. Honestly, it seems… overwhelming. And Süskind does a good job in painting a picture for what these things may smell like (even for someone with a poor sense of smell, like myself). Sometimes it’s disgusting but it is very visceral. Now, apart from this sense of smell, Grenouille can be characterized as 1) having no smell himself, and 2) as being cold and distant from really understanding or connecting with humans. We may say that part of this has to do with his early life, yet there is something about him even as a baby that just makes people want to get away from him. It’s almost as though there is something inherently evil or inhuman about him, which in fact makes it difficult for people to connect to, or for him to want to really interact with others either. And that, in a way, makes him hard to understand as a character. He just, does what he does because that’s what he wants. And so I had an extremely difficult time connecting to this character, which is unfortunate given that the entire novel revolves around him and his activities. In any case, we follow Grenouille as he learns the art of perfuming, abandons humanity, comes back to it, becomes obsessed with the scent of particular women, and searches to create the most appealing personal aroma to douse himself with in order to make people love and desire him. It is through his skill with scent that he manipulates and looks to gain power over the people he has no clue how to connect with.
From a technical standpoint, the writing in this novel is easy to follow, but stuffed with enough detail that it is engaging and really creates a clear image of what is going on. Süskind has clearly put a lot of effort into researching different arts such as that of tannery and perfuming, which almost verged onto the edge of being a little dry, but never quite falling into the boring side of things. The story, however, I was not a fan of. Just as I said it was hard to connect with Grenouille as a character, it was thereby difficult to connect with his story. It almost seemed overly fantastical with the intent to shock, but missing that certain aspect of the psychology of Grenouille, which would have really gone into the shocking or disturbing realm, I think. It’s almost as if everything was too perfunctory and explanatory, even when emotions were running high for certain characters.
It did get me thinking, however, about how everyone does have their own individual scent which can mark them. Yet this book seemed to place such a high importance on this, as though a person’s scent could influence other’s very strongly. And I mean, maybe we find people more attractive if they smell nice or want to not be so close to them when they smell bad, but even the subtleties of individual’s scents were highlighted here which kept making me… I don’t want to say “paranoid” while reading this, but it make me a little uncomfortable wondering about that, or how my life has been affected by how I smell? I don’t know, but it was a weird feeling.
In any case, I just didn’t find this book to be engaging overall, whether this be because of the perfunctory tone, or the distant nature of the main character which made it hard to really get into. I mean, we are supposed to be following this character and at least be interested and invested in what happens to him, but I didn’t find him engaging at all. And I think even starting off the bat with there being something wrong and inhuman about him at the beginning as a baby took away from even wanting to connect with or become invested in Grenouille as a character: if he has no humanity and is just inherently evil, then all discussion of his place within the society he roams and any relation to his from the reader is basically a futile endeavor. At least, that’s how I felt right from the beginning, and was never really able to overcome.
P.S: I now find out that Perfume is also a movie, starring Ben Whishaw, who honestly, I think could bring some kind of charisma to the character (then again, I am biased because I love him). Yet I’m confused as to how it would be possible to convey smells and the power of scents through the medium of film in an effective way? At least in novel form the description can really touch on human memories of scent and the brain can conjure these things up. I just don’t know. I probably won’t bother watching it in any case, given my distaste for the story after reading it.