'Perfume' by Patrick Süskind has been a slightly surreal read. It is one of the books for my TBR Pile Challenge. I read 'The Pigeon' back in October 2010 and was enthralled by it, but I confess this one much less so. It has a similarly socially isolated central character, if anything Grenouille (meaning frog is french, which amused me) is even more of an outcast than Jonathan Noel.
If you've come across the film of the book I think it follows the story quite well but would be hard put to capture the real essence of the book. The story is not really about murder, the deaths are almost incidental, it is a story about obsession. What it brought to mind most was Joanne Harris, many of who's books are about the delights of the senses. This book is about smells, and large tracts of the story detail the smells that Grenouille encounters in his travels, but there is no sense of delight or relishing of his amazing olfactory abilities and experiences. He takes very little pleasure in anything in life, and seems to accept it that way. Grenouille himself is without an odour, something he seems to blame for his outsider status; people do not acknowledge his existence as a human being, because they are virtually unaware of his presence. The story charts his struggle to create a scent for himself, he wants to smell perfect. For some reason the author kills off every single one of the characters he comes into contact with, maybe it is to emphasise their irrelevance? People come in and out of Grenouille's life, help him or hinder him, use him and exploit him, all the while he is gaining the knowledge he needs to create his desire. The writer is almost as obsessive as Grenouille himself. So the pleasure of the book is in the reading, not so much the story as the indulgence of the senses. What I liked was the celebration of smell and the way it is probably the most undervalued of the human senses, how we don't even notice so many of the smells we encounter, the way smells influence our emotions and our responses to people, things and places. If anything Grenouille is slightly scornful of the way that people cover themselves with artificial smells, because what he aspires to is to smell human. I like that about him, even if there is nothing else to like.
Long quote now, that I feel captures him, and the book:
"There was a little pile of cat-shit behind the threshold of the door leading out to the courtyard, still quite fresh. He took half a teaspoon of it and placed it together with several drops of vinegar and finely ground salt in a mixing bottle. Under the worktable he found a thumbnail-sized piece of cheese, apparently from one of Runel's lunches. It was already quite old, had begun to decompose, and gave off a biting, pungent odour. From the lid of a sardine tub that stood by the back door of the shop, he scratched off a rancid fishy something-or-other, mixed it with rotten egg and castoreum, ammonia, nutmeg, horn shavings and singed pork rind, finely ground. To this he added a relatively large amount of civet, mixed these ghastly ingredients with alcohol, let it digest and filtered it into a second bottle. The bilge smelled revolting. Its stink was putrid, like a sewer, and if you fanned its vapour just once to mix it with fresh air, it was as if you were standing in Paris on a hot summer day, at the corner of the rue aux Fers and the rue de la Lingerie, where the odours from Les Halles, the Cimetière des Innocents and the overcrowded tenements converged.
On top of this disgusting base, which smelled more like a cadaver than a human being, Grenouille spread a layer of fresh oily scents: peppermint, lavender, turpentine, lime, eucalyptus, which he then simultaneously disguised and tamed with the pleasant bouquet of fine floral oils - geranium, rose, orange blossom and jasmine. After a second dilution with alcohol and a splash of vinegar there was nothing left of the disgusting base odour on which the mixture was built. The latent stench lay lost and unnoticeable under the fresh ingredients; the nauseous part, pampered by the scent of flowers, had become almost interesting; and, strangely enough, there was not putrefaction left in the smell, not the least. On the contrary, the perfume seemed to exhale the robust, vivacious scent of life." (p.155-6)