Perfume is one of those books that stands almost completely alone in literature. Perhaps Crime and Punishment or American Psycho might be found on the same shelf but even they scarcely begin to make a comparison.
To say that it is the story of a man with an obsession that leads him to kill is also an understatement. For Jean-Baptiste Grenouille isn’t so much a man with a mission as a man whose entire life revolves around a single experience: smell. I hesitate to write that he lives and breathes for the sensation of scents, not just because of the execrable pun but also because it is questionable whether he lives in the ordinary sense. He is, perhaps, an example of Socrates’s ‘unexamined life’.
Grenouille is born with a hypersensitivity to smell that is normally only found in animals like hunting dogs. He can detect the presence of a human individual, or their trace, over hundreds of metres. His world as a child and young man is thus a world of smell. He is completely careless of his own life except in as far as he experiences scents. All his responses are to smell.
As an adolescent he discovers the smell of virginal young women and this governs his emotions and actions for the rest of his life. He contrives to get himself apprenticed to one of Paris’s leading perfumiers and learns about the ingredients and the science of smell.
Things take a darker turn when Grenouille becomes so hooked on the scent of young women that he decides he must capture and preserve their scent, as he has learned to do with the scent of lavender or roses. From this modest beginning he conceives and executes a plan of staggering scale and complexity, which has even more mind-boggling consequence – but of which I will say no more.
The Novel is noteworthy for a number of reasons. First, it was written by a German, Patrick Suskind and later translated into English (winning a prize for the translator). The language used by the author and his translator is utterly beautiful and the tone of voice in which Grenouille’s journey is narrated is captivating.
For many years, German film producer Bernd Eichinger tried to buy the flim rights from Suskind, his friend, without success. Eventually he got Suskind to sign in 2001 for 10 million Euros. In 2006, the film was made with Ben Wishaw as Grenouille and with the cameo of a lifetime from Dustin Hoffman as the Parisian perfumier, Giuseppe Baldini. It remains one of the biggest German films ever made, with a budget of around $60 million.
Perfume has the doubtful distinction of being the only book I have started reading in the past 10 years that I have also finished at a sitting.