Perfume by Patrick Suskind is one of the books I found through the BBC’s radio program A Good Read. Everyone on that week’s panel enjoyed the book and it sounded very interesting so I bought it. The novel follows a child born into abject poverty in 18th century France who rises to become the best perfumer in the country. The fly in the ointment, a considerable fly to be certain, is that he also becomes a sociopathic serial killer.

Scent pervades the book, as one may expect in a story called Perfume. The anti-hero of the novel, Jean-Baptist Grenouille, is blessed with an unusually excellent sense of
smell. He can recognize the smell of anything, break down a general odor into its component parts and identify the types and quantity of each element present. He is also cursed–he has no personal smell himself; he gives off no odor what-so-ever. The effects of this blessing and this curse, along with an extremely deprived childhood that Grenouille barely survived work over time to separate Grenouille from the rest of humanity and create a serial killer.

The writing in Perfume is excellent. (That this comes across so well is a tribute to the translator, John E. Woods.) At times the book reads like a long prose poem. However, I found that the book contained too many lists for my taste. The first few, detailing all of the things Grenouille can smell on a Paris street for example, were fascinating, but they just kept coming and coming until, towards the end, I found myself skimming them over.

As a character study, Perfume, does an excellent job, but one has to ask to what end. Understanding what makes a character a serial killer is somewhat useful, I guess, but if that condition is caused in part by two supernatural gifts is there anything true to the human condition that can be learned? I don’t put much stock in serial killers except as foils for fictional detectives. (I suspect that for every real serial killer there are by now 2000 fictional ones.) A killer blessed with a superior sense of smell and cursed with no body odor what-so-ever moves Perfume into the realm of fable, but what then is the moral? I do not know.

A fable without a moral, an attempt to understand a killer without teaching us anything about a killer’s nature, no matter how well written leaves me unsatisfied.

 

I’m surprised to find I was so negative in my critique of this book.  I recall liking it, but I’d forgotten the issues I had with it.  I’ve not read anything else by Patrick Suskind since I first published this review in 2008 on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., but I’m interested in doing so, after reading this review.

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