BOOKS

The scent of savagery

PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER By Patrick Süskind

John Bemrose February 16 1987
BOOKS

The scent of savagery

PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER By Patrick Süskind

John Bemrose February 16 1987

The scent of savagery

BOOKS

PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER By Patrick Süskind

(.Random House, 255 pages, $21+. 75)

The young German writer Patrick Süskind is rapidly making a name for himself as an explorer of human solitude. His successful 1980 theatrical debut, The Double Bass— which Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre has twice staged in English translation— wittily examined the lonely bachelor life of a musician in a German provincial orchestra. Now, Süskind’s enthralling first novel, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, is winning an even larger international audience. At once darker and more mysterious than The Double Bass, Perfume is a kind of fairy tale for adults. Set in the corrupt, roisterous cities of 18th-century France, the novel has a most unlikely hero. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is an ugly orphan who eventually becomes one of the most famous mass murderers of his day. But what makes Grenouille fascinating is less his crimes than the bodily organ in whose service he commits them: his extraordinary nose.

Simply put, Grenouille possesses the most sensitive nose in history. He can identify a thousand odors undetected by ordinary mortals and mentally dissect them into their minutest components. But as described in Süskind’s elegant prose, Grenouille’s gift is a terrible burden. The stench of his native Paris is a constant torture to him. He dreams of becoming a great perfumer, creating scents that will mask the hell he inhabits. But he has deeper motives too. The man with the world’s most efficient nose has no smell himself, no distinctive odor—a fact that renders him deeply unreal to himself and nonexistent for others. Above all else, he longs to invent and wear a perfume that will make the world love him.

Sketched out in such bald outline, Perfume seems highly improbable. But Süskind brings it to life by holding fast to the one element that Grenouille shares with all humanity—his deep, self-consuming loneliness. Grenouille’s career is a hymn to his own cold, amoral solitude. Süskind makes this clear in the moving, sparely poetic passages describing Grenouille’s life as a hermit in the remote, mountainous Massif Central region of France. For seven years he survives on moss and insects. He is perfectly content spending up to 20 hours a day in the recesses

of a dark cave and savoring in memory the odors of the sea and forest and other exquisite smells he has known.

Later, Grenouille has plenty of contact with humans,, including the two dozen virgin girls he murders in order to extract their scents for his planned love potion. His other social in-

teraction is marked with extreme selfinterest on both sides. Süskind’s discomfiting, beautifully rendered vision suggests that the social contract is a tenuous sham. Like Grenouille, every person is as solitary as “a feeding pike in a great, dark, slowly moving current.” Not all the episodes in Grenouille’s saga illustrate that theme with equal power. But overall, Perfume is a highly original and hypnotic work, a shaft of light thrown deep into a treacherous, unmapped region of the heart.

-JOHN BEMROSE