“A fantastic tale of murder and twisted eroticism controlled by a disgusted loathing of humanity … Clever, stylish, absorbing and well worth reading.”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
Our sense of smell often takes a back seat when we think of which senses are most precious to us. Understandably, most people would much rather lose their sense of smell rather than their sight or their hearing. We rely on these to help guide us through everyday life and they allow us to engage with the world, they are the most useful tools in everyday life. Compared to many animals, the human’s sense of smell is dull and has been dulled further by the comforts of modern life.
The average human has about six million olfactory receptors in their nose, whilst the average dog has about 300 million. We often see adverts for eye tests and hearing tests, many of us wear glasses or hearing aids, but when was the last time you saw anyone concerned about their sense of smell? It seems to be sense that we humans aren’t too concerned about, at least as long as we can smell when the milk’s off.
Whilst we may not spare much thought to our sense of smell, it is still a very primal part of our makeup and was no doubt an essential tool back in our hunter gatherer days. Our sense of smell is more closely linked to memory than the likes of hearing, seeing, or tasting. Have you ever caught a fleeting scent that immediately brought you back to a long lost memory from years gone by? Such is the power of scent. We may tend to overlook smells in our day to day lives, I certainly do, but reading Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume has reminded me of the importance of scents.
The novel is set in Paris in the 1700’s and follows the life of a man named Jean-Baptiste Grenouille who is born with an incredibly strong sense of smell. His nose is so keen that he is able to smell people coming, can locate lost items simply by their scent, and can catalogue smells in his mind. Whilst his sense of smell may be keen, his heart is empty and he seems to be completely unrestrained by everyday emotions. As a young lad, Grenouille encounters the irresistible smell of a young girl entering puberty. He promptly murders her and sniffs every inch of her body to catalogue the unique scent. Believing it is his destiny to bottle such a scent, Grenouille decides to pursue a career as a master perfumer, he works as an apprentice where his unique skills quickly make him the best perfumers in France. The story then follows Grenouille as he becomes a famed perfumer and experiments in scents that allow him to either go unnoticed or incite various emotions among those who smell it. His obsession with scents goes on to reaches a head with extreme consequences for all.
A book about the sense of smell could have been a dull affair, were it not for the excellent way it is written by Suskind. His use of language is beautiful and his descriptions make even some with a dull nose like mine feel like they can smell the essences on the page. It’s not hard to see why this book has become such a modern classic given how excellent Suskind’s prose is. I challenge anyone not to read this and not then start using their nose a little more.
The character of Grenouille is both fascinating, sympathetic, and yet also repulsive. In early life he is beat down at every corner and one can’t help but root for the character as he tries to rise above his terrible beginnings. As he becomes more in control of his life, Grenouille quickly becomes insidious and deceptive and there’s something very creepy in the way he is described as living like a tick. Grenouille does indeed live like a parasite, taking whatever he needs from people. As he becomes more unstable, eventually resorting to killing a young virgin, Grenouille turns into a monster, but a compelling one nonetheless. Like Humbert Humbert from Lolita, he’s a character you feel bad for sympathising with, though Grenouille may be a little more redeemable. I also found myself really getting lost in the city of Paris, where the most of the book takes place. Suskind’s descriptions of the city, mostly by its smells, really conjure up vivid mages in my imagination. Characters are also described primarily by their sense of smell and you have to remember that, in a time before washing machines and hot showers, most people would have been very pungent indeed.
The story of perfume made me really re-evaluate the importance of scents and how certain smells can influence us on a subconscious level. It makes one wonder how much of our everyday lives are dictated by scents without us even realising it. Throughout the book, you get the feeling pressure is mounting and it ends in a finale that sees an orgy of scents come together in one hell of an ending that isn’t likely to leave you any time soon.
Perfume is a book unlike any I’ve read and it’s not hard to see why this book has become so popular. Despite its dark themes, Perfume is often cited as one of the most beautiful books ever written and I would encourage anyone to give it a go. I was engaged within the first chapter and it doesn’t let up until the last page. Even after finishing it, I still find myself thinking of Perfume.
Added 4th August 2017