Friday, December 29, 2006

A smell so sweet yet so bitter

Perfume by Patrick Suskind

Perfume is an odd novel, slight in length, but deep.

Jean-Pierre Grenouille is born into the ordure of Paris though lacking any smell himself. His peculiar sense of smell horrifies midwives and priests and he finds himself abandoned. Moving from menial job to job, he finds himself drawn to a particular scent carried on the breeze. Following it he finds young lady whom he kills for her perfection, thus beginning his secondary career as a murderer. He joins the establishment of a perfume creator by reverse engineering the scent of a rival. He builds both of their reputations, garnering fame and wealth until he leaves the city. Having spent seven years in the wilderness, he comes back to the wealth of a court of lord. Grenouille decides to further his perfume teaching by travelling to a town specialising in perfume making. Once again he apprentices himself to a teacher and learns the finer arts of scent, enhancing his own nasal capacities. In paradise a canker must eventually come and once again he scents a perfect scent, hidden from view, launching him onto his final murderous spree. His capture allows him one more, orgiastic climax before his demise.

The Gothic, certainly the classic form, shouldn't work post-Northanger Abbey but in Suskind's hands it does wonderfully. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, compressing the reader into the psychotic world of our protagonists, mainly using the sense of smell.

What does seem to be missing from the reviews that I've read is the wonderful critique of capitalism that mirrors Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities and Easton Ellis's American Pyscho (though in this the murders are not in his head). Grenouille's savage chase of the scent seems analogous to the pursuit of wealth and the killer deal at all costs, though with the European Gothic's gallows humour.

This cult classic deserves more attention and I hope that the film will get a few more people reading the book.


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