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A pungent classic
on 19 January 2004
I’d heard a lot of good things about Patrick Suskind’s Perfume before I read it. It seemed to be one of those rare books that came out of no where and has slowly, effortlessly become a classic of modern European literature.
In many ways it is unique – the life story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the unloved, abandoned street urchin born in a putrid gutter in eighteenth-century Paris moments before his mother died. What makes Grenouille different to all the other orphans though is the fact that he has no odour, no smell at all; and he has the most remarkable nose that can not only pick out a scent from miles away but can also unravel its strands until every element has been teased out. As Grenouille ambles through his life from friendless child to a tanner’s labourer, and then onto the position of apprentice to Baldini, a washed-out, cheating perfumer, it becomes clear that Grenouille has not only the ability to pluck scents from the air but also to create the most wondrous perfumes the world has ever known.
Grenouille doesn’t want to just produce magical scents that will take Europe by storm and give him unimaginable wealth though. He wants to create something else, something just for himself, and he will stop at nothing to achieve this. So, his journey takes him out of Paris and finally to Grasse in southern France where the true abomination of this creature truly comes to light.
Perfume is in many ways an epic novel and whilst it wanes a little in the middle, the plot glides with a steady pace across France, over many years and a sizeable cast of fascinating and colourfully drawn caricatures. Suskind succeeds in the seemingly impossible. He writes (and is translated) with such skill that the scents waft off the page right in front of you, whether in the steaming, putrid streets of Paris or the pungent flower crops of Grasse.
If anything the only flaw is a climax in Grasse that verges on farcical, and the fact that Suskind draws Grenouille as such a disagreeable protagonist that it is very hard for the reader to have any sympathy for such a vile monster. The real enjoyment of the book, however, comes from the delusional, selfish, naïve, cruel, corrupt and – above all – ignorant – cast of thousands that roam the back streets of the plot. The ultimate comeuppance for some of these renegades that infiltrate Grenouille’s story are truly pantomime and hysterically funny. If anything, these minor characters sparkle more brightly than Grenouille himself and so leave the protagonist looking rather soulless in comparison (maybe the author’s wish, I don’t know). All–in–all though, Perfume whisks you into the vile, crazy world of eighteenth-century France and the mind of a truly heartless murderer. When you turn the last page, the odour is left with you for days to come and that, surely, is the true gift of a masterpiece.