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PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER
By
PATRICK SUSKIND (Knopf; 1985/86)

Quite simply put, this is one of the great horror novels of our time, as well as an unsurpassed example of historical speculation. A macabre tale set in eighteenth century France, PERFUME seems to have taken the place of THE NAME OF THE ROSE as the standout example of history-based fiction by which all others are judged, and I feel that’s entirely appropriate.

     Beyond that PERFUME accomplishes something even more unique, illuminating a sensory realm that few (if any) other novels have ever breached. As the author informs us in a faux-nonfiction aside, the exploits of one Jean-Baptiste Grenouille are unknown to most historians because they’re “restricted to a domain that leaves no traces in history: to the fleeting realm of scent.”

     Birthed by a whore in an outdoor fish market, Grenouille enters the world with a unique affliction: he has no scent. He’s also from the start of his life obsessed with all things fragrant. This makes living in mid-eighteenth century Paris interesting, as it’s apparently “the greatest preserve for odors in all the world.” After spending his childhood in the care of a succession of foster parents, at age 15 Grenouille commits his first murder. The victim is a young woman whose scent Grenouille longs to possess, which sets in place his lifelong goal of becoming a perfumer.

     Grenouille’s odyssey involves working for two perfumers and seven solitary years in the bowels of a remote volcano, spent in a private universe of scent. Upon returning to civilization Grenouille learns to blend in with the populace by creating a perfume that gives his scentless body a human smell. He also becomes a murderer of young women, extracting their odors in an effort to create a “master scent.”

     Grenouille creates the desired perfume, which comes in mighty handy after he’s caught and sentenced to death for his crimes. I won’t reveal what happens when Grenouille unleashes his master scent before a large crowd on the day of his execution, nor his ultimate fate, which also involves a specially created fragrance.

     There’s far more to PERFUME, of course, than that bare bones plot summary. The richness of the prose (superbly translated from the German by John E. Woods) and characterizations are beyond compare, from an early description of the overwhelming stench of Europe in the 1700s (“The peasant stank as did the priest, the apprentice as did his master’s wife, the whole of the aristocracy stank, even the king himself stank…”) to the depiction of the aging perfumer Giuseppe Baldini, whose business is single-handedly revived by a certain youthful apprentice, to the description of Grenouille’s hallucinatory existence in the volcano (“On the cleanly swept masts of his soul, he stretched out comfortably to the fullest and dozed away, letting delicate scents play about his nose…”).

     Such an accomplishment is rare, as evinced by the fact that PERFUME’S author Patrick Suskind, whose first novel it was, has never come close to matching its brilliance. Subsequent efforts like THE PIGEON and MY SUMMER’S STORY were short and slight, with none of the voluminous research, feverish imagination, compulsive readability or fertile horror of PERFUME.

     

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