A review of Perfume by Patrick Süskind

Reviewed by Mark Steadman

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
by Patrick Süskind
Reprint edition, Feb 2001, Paperback, 272 pages, ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0375725845

In George Orwell’s 1984 “he who controls the past controls the future”. In Patrick Süskind’s Perfume “he who rules scent rules the hearts of men.” One can imagine that Patrick Süskind came up with the premise for this book after asking himself what would be a weirdly useful superpower? Scent, very much the dark horse, or ugly duckling if you prefer, of the five senses, takes centre stage in the terrific novel ‘Perfume’. Set in 1870’s Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, the protagonist Jean-Baptist lives in a world where odours have an outsized effect on human attraction. In Süskind’s world famous women aren’t famous because of their beauty but because of their scent: “People are stupid and use their noses only for blowing, but believe absolutely anything they see with their eyes, they will say it is because this is a girl with beauty and grace and charm.”

Our hero himself has no scent, which entails, to stay true to the logic of the story, that he’s shunned by everyone he ever meets. First by his mother then by his adopted mother and so on. His lack of odour making him something of a ‘non-person’ to anybody he encounters, un-memorable, .

By giving scent such fantastical power Patrick Süskind lands on a point. If any one of us was told that they had to lose one of their five primary senses, who would not pick smell? Many sufferers of anosmia, however, speak of the
social-isolation and anhedonia they experience. Like our finger prints, our body’s scent is unique to us. Though we may be more coy than dogs about it, humans do need scent to build relationships. A lack of appetite, technically anorexia, as well as the serious danger of not being able to spot gas leaks for example or spoiled food are dangerous, under-appreciated disadvantages
that accompany a damaged sense of smell.

Our protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille takes full advantage of his supernatural olfactory powers whether it’s detecting the ingredients of a cake from the bouquet drifting out of a patisserie or indeed triangulating and then stalking sweet smelling women from across town through the smoke miasma of 19th century Paris. The novel takes a dark turn in the latter half as our protagonist seeks to create the ultimate perfume and with it “A power stronger than the power of money or the power of terror or the power of death: the invincible power to command the love of mankind.”

Süskind’s dark taste in comedy and clever use of logic permeate every page. Jean-Baptiste’s skill as a perfumer making camouflage, shadowing and eventually murder all possible with a few drops of a home-made fragrance. Like all superhero films or books one fantasises of having said superpower and the fantastical, god-like things one could do with it. As Süskind puts it: “He could walk to Versailles and have the king kiss his feet. He could write the pope a perfumed letter and reveal himself as the new Messiah.” The novel ends in a blaze of obscene violence and grotesquery as passions run high under the influence of Grenouille’s masterwork, as our psychopath hero puts it: “People can close their eyes to greatness, to horror, to beauty, and their ears to melodies or deceiving words. But they can’t escape scent!”

About the reviewer: Mark Steadman writes book reviews and articles freelance. Before taking up writing he studied philosophy at Kings college London before working as a teacher. He now writes full-time.