Perfume by Patrick Süskind is a book that only came to my attention because of Nirvana’s late singer/songwriter Kurt Cobain. However, it was never a book that I felt an immediate attraction toward. Instead, it slowly pulled me in, wafting Its curiosity into my subconscious mind. Perfume, released in 1985, has sold over 20 million copies and translated into 49 different languages. The title is pretty simple but also filled with mystery, darkness and intrigue. I finally succumbed to its attraction and asked my good friend Adam from A Couple of Dorks to share the experience.
Adam: Patrick Süskind: a name synonymous with mystery among the literary crowd; a reclusive man, one who rejects any kind of literary award and declines interviews. Get the feeling this guy’s an eccentric? Yeah, me too, and the feeling only amplifies when you read his novel: Perfume (Das Parfum).
Adam: German born, Patrick comes from a family of literary talent. His educational background is in medieval and modern history which he studied in the early-mid 70’s before breaking off his studies to pursue a career in writing. He relocated to Paris, and made his first claim to success with The Double Bass in 1981, with his best-selling novel Perfume being published just four years later. He’s yet to write another novel, which serves the aura of mysteriousness in a way I find satisfyingly apt, as though he stepped out of the shadows to show us some particular thing before slipping back to the abyss from whence he came. Okay, a bit dramatic perhaps, but you can’t blame me, I am merely a victim of Süskind’s seductive voodoo. Like the protagonist (and I use that word lightly) in Perfume, Süskind has become a godlike entity.
First of all, I am going to talk about my real disappointment in the story right away. I think because I had heard about this book for a long time, I expected it to be something far more grounded than it was. Certain moments in the structure of the story felt a little comical compared to the reality of the situation I was expecting. For instance, Guiseppe Baldini is a master perfumer in the city of Paris who helps a young Jean-Baptiste Grenouille to master his trade. Okay, maybe for his own gains, but when Grenouille leaves for pastures new, Baldini’s shop collapse into the river Seine. It reminds me of The Omen films, but I didn’t feel like there was any real shock or weight to the tragedy. Now that is out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff.
Adam: Perfume is a truly unique book, one that will stay in my memory banks for as long as Pigs remain flightless. Its darkly satirical cruelty makes American Psycho look like a children’s book. I bloody love how dark and strange it gets; let its weird evil spirit infect me, let my dreams be haunted by Jean-Baptise Grenouille’s perversions and cruelty, because I’m addicted to the dark and creepy and Süskind can do such a thing in a way that is wholly tasteful and complex, like Camille Saint-Saens Danse Macabre, or Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.
I feel bad criticising the book at first because I do enjoy the tale of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. Ironically, I had lost both my sense of smell and taste a few weeks before reading this book due to the old covid. You soon realise just how important those senses are, and this book only elevated my love for the aroma of life even more. I think that’s why my feeling about Grenouille is conflicted. Here we have a character that is unloved, alone and simply enjoying the tangy scents of everyday life. Who is more alive in this story? Jean Baptiste or the people around him who dredge their way through the mundane existence we call life? Or are we missing the beauty of life without noticing what goes up our snout?
Suddenly we get to the forbidden fruit! Without a doubt, Patrick Süskind is prodding the reader to admit that they enjoy some smells you wouldn’t dare mention in public, but he likes to take it further. He drags the reader down to the basic foundation of life, the human condition and exposes the fragility of life or its simplicity. As a result, I am starting to feel bad for having some issues with the story because Perfume is described as Horror fiction, mystery, absurd and realism! It is absurd, but it works! Grenouille’s super-smelling powers could easily be added to The Boys. I guess that is why I asked Adam to join me for this review because he can delve deeper into these absurdities and bring out the complexities of the writing. I really just try to say it as I see it.
“A ghastly conglomerate of odour was reproduced on the impregnated swatches: anal sweat, menstrual blood, moist hollows of knees and clenched hands, mixed with the exhaled breath of thousands of hymn singing and Ave Maria-mumbling throats and the oppressive fumes of incense and myrrh. A horrible concentration of nebulous, amorphous, nauseating odours – and yet unmistakably human.”
Adam: His evocative prose creates a reading experience that combines the grotesque with the majestic. Süskind pulled me into his rich atmospheric settings, conjured smells and sights and feelings on a level that most authors can only dream of conjuring. He has a way of tapping into my very soul, mesmerising me with a story so bizarre, so surreal and yet it speaks of very real, very human experiences, aspects of our nature that perhaps we hide away from ourselves like our perpetual struggle with identity and place, how much power and control we truly have in a world that sees us as a status or a burden, and dare I say it, what it means to be human.
The story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is unique. Born in Paris in 1738, he is an orphan brought into a world of savagery. However, it seems clear that Patrick Süskind is trying to say that a baby born to a whore, and holding no bodily smell is somehow evil, I think! Alternatively, Grenouille is raised as a tanner boy in one of the most grotesque jobs that has ever existed, plus it’s also noticeable that the people around him are pretty evil and self-centred. Every character who takes him in and helps him is only out for profit and gains and is incapable of showing any kind of love to Grenouille. Realistically, circumstances alone could turn any child into something undesirable in life.
I suppose this is when the absurd and the realism reach a climax. Jean-Baptiste, a child who has never felt love, has a super nose to identify the favourite scents people adore in life. The act of murder is always a pretty horrific act in life, but the absurdity of that situation is that Grenouille is collecting these scents so he can simply feel love from others. That feels like the realism that Suskind is trying to remind the reader about, I think!
“This world moulded in lead, where nothing moved but the wind that fell sometimes like a shadow over the grey forests, and where nothing lived but the scent of the naked earth, was the only world that he accepted, for it was much like the world of his soul.”
Adam: Jean-Baptise Grenouille . . . our hero who came from zero, a classic bildungsroman tale with a dark, evil backbone. Grenouille is a conduit, initially for observations of societal rejection, a conduit for our inane resentment towards people we don’t understand, but eventually he transforms into a conduit for how we value people with status and renown, and for how much power we give to those in possession of such things. A hero then not by classic definition but by manner of how his cruel achievements teach us of ourselves, teach us of our own cruelty and of our weakness.
Adam describes this book most beautifully, but I find it hard to write so creatively. It has beauty and ugliness, lust and desire, and simplicity and imagery that blew my emotional senses apart. It also feels pretty isolating, in a good way. You are with John-Baptiste throughout the story, and you find yourself disliking the people in his life. You can also feel the warmth of a sack lying in the corner of a room as a place to rest your tired and aching bones.
Perfume is so good that you go through all the emotions available to you within this book. I don’t think I’ve read a book like this before. It challenges you and takes you to places you have never been before. It is also intelligent and possibly the reason I might have missed the real point of the story! Is it about Jesus? A reflection of society once past or one present? Or maybe it’s to remind us of one of our senses that we don’t think about enough? I’m not sure, but I guess that’s down to each reader to decide. It’s a book everyone should sit down and read at some point in their existence.
Adam: A book that everyone should read, one that I believe will go down in history as the literary equivalent of Kurt Cobain – he came, he saw, he blew our minds away and left a legacy of mystery and intrigue.
Thank you for visiting today, what do you think about Perfume? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Also, if you enjoyed this review, please share it, give it a like or follow me for future releases. Also, you can find Adam over at A Couple of Dorks on Instagram. Again, thanks for visiting, have a great day and see you soon.