In 18th-century France, a place and time known both for its terrible stenches (disease, corpses, manure, human bodies, excrement, rotting food) and its delightful aromas (cinnamon, jasmine, ambergris, storax, coffee), a baby is born. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille has no parents, no lineage, no connections — and no odor, none of the delightful smell that babies’ heads always give off. He has no smell of his own at all, something that makes the people around him profoundly uneasy. What he does have is the greatest nose humankind has ever known: the ability to distinguish, in the smell of smoke, not just the kind of wood being burned, but what precise blend of oxygen and ash and leaf and wood make up the residue at any given moment; the ability to distinguish hundreds of thousands of individual human scents, forever archived in his memory. His language of scent far exceeds any words he has to describe it.
Although Grenouille is lower than the lowest rung on French society’s ladder — an unknown bastard with no money and no connections, and with that deeply unsettling lack of scent — his ambitions are as huge as the world itself. He plans to apprentice himself to a master perfumer, to find the greatest scents in the world, to create the most enchanting aromas, to capture human scents and use them for his own devices (even if it means murder) — for nothing less than to make himself beloved. And he will do all of this through the realm of scent:
For people could close their eyes to greatness, to horrors, to beauty, and their ears to melodies or deceiving words. But they could not escape scent. For scent was a brother of breath. Together with breath it entered human beings, who could not defend themselves against it, not if they wanted to live. And scent entered into their very core, went directly to their hearts, and decided for good and all between affection and contempt, disgust and lust, love and hate. He who ruled scent ruled the hearts of men.
Patrick Süskind’s Perfume is an amazing book. I began reading it, not having heard much about it, and found that it’s an absolute masterpiece. One of the first things that struck me, of course, is that the prose is gorgeous. It’s translated from the German, and the translation is simply stunning; if I hadn’t known it was a translation I would never have guessed. The second thing is that the plot is fascinating. The central conceit, of a man with no scent but with a superlative sense of smell, is interesting in itself; to be able to trace his career is simply riveting, from beginning to end. And of course, the delicacy of writing a book about such an ephemeral realm as that of scent must be maddening. How do you describe a scent so your readers can smell it? Especially something literally indescribable, something normal human beings can’t smell: the scent of an almost-ripening, virginal young girl, for instance, apparently one of the most delightful scents on earth.
The third thing that fascinated me about Perfume is that Süskind makes Grenouille a truly repulsive character. It’s a bold move, one that few novelists dare make. He doesn’t hold back: you never like Grenouille or even pity him, and yet you can’t look away. (And the ending holds a genuine surprise.) The implications of the book are haunting. Do we find certain people charming, charismatic, or endearing chiefly because of the way they smell, without even knowing it? Süskind makes it all too plausible. This book was a marvelous, strange, dark, mysterious pleasure, eerie in places, resplendent with beautiful prose. Its flavor of 18th-century France was perfect. This was an unexpected discovery for me.