Perfume:the Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind

Perfume by Patrick  Süskind, translated from the German by John E üWoods was first  published in 1985. It is an extraordinary novel, a Gothic work in the vein of Edgar Allen Poe, or Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Grey. It depicts the strange life of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille and is a book of smells. Grenouille, himself has no body smell, but an acute sense of smell. He can recognise and locate the source of smells from miles away. His absence of smell alienates him from other people and he in turn is disgusted by their odour. He is an outsider.

On the trail of an elusive but exquisite smell he tracks it down to a young girl and kills her to possess  her scent for himself.  This puts him in a state of ecstatic happiness and

… he felt he knew who he really was: nothing less than a genius. And that the meaning and goal and purpose of  his life had a higher destiny: nothing less than to revolutionise the odoriferous world. (page 46)

He knew he had to become a creator of scents, the greatest perfumer of all time.

From then on his life became even stranger, if that was possible. He learnt the various processes of making perfume, then withdrew from the world, living for seven years in total isolation in a cave. There he existed in a world with no human smells, whilst he lived in his mind recreating the exquisite scent of the young girl he had killed.

He had withdrawn solely for his own personal pleasure, only to be nearer to himself. No longer distracted by anything external, he basked in his own existence and found it splendid. He lay in his stony crypt like his own corpse, hardly breathing, his heart hardly beating – and yet he lived as intensively and dissolutely as ever a rake had lived in the world outside. (page 128)

I was fascinated by the descriptive language, by so many different smells, scents, perfumes, stenches and obnoxious odours. The descriptions of how perfume is made, when you know what he had in mind was chilling. He wants the delicious scent of the girl he killed, to peel it off her and make it his own. Quite simply this is a horror story, one that made me not want to read it and yet also want to read it to the bitter end. It’s a tale of obsession, the atmosphere Süskind evokes is tremendous, and the detail it contains adds to the realism. Maybe Grenouille is a modern Dracula.

To say that I ‘enjoyed’ it is not true, but it is a tremendous story and well written.

Publisher: Penguin (re-issue edition April 2010)
Paperback: 272 pages
ISBN-10: 0141041153
ISBN-13: 978-0141041155
Source: My own copy (an earlier edition)

9 thoughts on “Perfume:the Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind”

  1. I have read “Perfume” few years ago. It is a book that is hard to forget. I agree with you that the “tour de force” of the author is in the descriptions and the unusual story of this strange killer. The last part of the book is such a farce and a kind of an ironic view or take on the power of the senses. How important those hormones play in us humans liking or disliking something or someone? How far can we go to smell that special odor that will make us forget everything? Is scent a silent drug that would make us do the impossible? Interesting concept. Anyway found this book to be an interesting and fascinating book all around.

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  2. I decided against this when it first came out because of the horror and I’m not sure I want to read it now. Have you seen the film? I almost did go to that on the grounds of wanting to know how they managed the perfume side of it. 3D is one thing, smelly-vision quite another.

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    1. I have not seen the film, Annie and I have no intention of seeing it. Horror on the page is bad enough but on the screen – no, it’s not for me! Smelly-vision would be appalling.

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  3. This book is in my to be read pile for this year. I find the premise rather intriguing. Looking forward to being severely unnerved by it!

    Thanks for the review!

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  4. Hi Margaret,

    What an interesting and unusual book, sounds like a great find and I have already added it to my ‘wish list’
    The whole concept of existing in a state where the sense of smell is the main driving force, is a truly frightening concept.
    I am sitting here imaging all the various scents and perfumes that are around us on a daily basis. Trying to decide which one of those scents I might like to own just for myself and how I would acquire it, is quite a scary and intriguing thought.
    When I checked out your link on Amazon, I was quite taken with the cover art on the edition they showcase.
    Not sure about watching the story unfold as a film however, ‘Silence Of The Lambs’ had me squirming in my seat.
    Thanks for the recommendation.

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    1. Yvonne, as I was reading this book I’m sure my sense of smell was enhanced! At any rate I became much more aware of so many different smells. One of my memories of the first library I worked in is the smell of books in the bookstacks – wonderful. I’m sure couldn’t watch the film – ‘Silence of the Lambs’ was indeed scary!

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