Thursday, January 27, 2011

Perfume: The Story of A Murderer


Perfume: The Story of A Murderer by Patrick Süskind was recommended to me in December. It was an example of the kind of book that lurks somewhere in my conscious on the 'interesting-but-probably-not-my-thing-because-it-is-probably-revolting' shelf (the most prominent of which is American Psycho of which I have read the first chapters and marvelled at the writing and the pace and the voice but cannot yet bring myself to read the rest, blergh).


Anyways, I was assured by a good friend with fine literary taste that it was fabulous and had some of the most beautiful prose writing she had ever read. I promised to read it and in due course borrowed said book in the Popular Penguin edition. [Side note: I love, love, love these editions and if I were really, really rich I would buy every single one of them! Go Aussie publishing genius!!] Perfume was certainly very readable and in many respects a revelation.


Writing about sensory experiences can be quite difficult and Süskind manages to acutely convey the complexity of his protagonists ability very successfully. Born into a cruel world Grenuoille owns the most advanced nose imaginable. As he grows up and seeks to learn the secrets of distillation of scent he ends up with an unimaginable catalogue of scents locked inside his memory. He is obsessed with scent, with isolating the source and capturing the essence, so much so that it leads him to murder.


Fortunately though, Süskind recognises that unlike Grenouille the reader's nose is not so discerning and their imaginations need more than delicious description of scent. Hence we are treated to an array of intriguing characters that allow for us to form a view of the world that Grenouille by necessity inhabits. The most appealing of these characters is Giuseppe Baldini who is a Master Perfumer who apprentices the nose of the precocious Grenouille. There is a section close to where we are first introduced to this character where we truly get an image of the France this world is set in. The politics, the society the bubbling social upheaval that begins The Enlightenment. An ageing man, Baldini riles against this change but it gives invaluable context and finesse to the rest of the work. So complimenting the focus and intense description of Grenouille's noise is a compelling character novel told in an unobtrusive yet interested narrative voice.


The only bone to pick with this book is the indifferent characterisation of the women Grenouille murders. True, they smell nice. They are intoxicating, but I don't think one of them utters a line of dialogue and the one that becomes the focus of the book towards the end is presented only through the eyes of her father. That said, perhaps this distance allows the reader to follow along with the now-serial-killer Grenouille without complete revulsion. If these characters were given a voice, it would seem like much more than their scent had been harvested. An interesting thought to ponder.


So, it came well recommended and that recommendation is passed on. Overcome the distaste and inhale the somewhat intoxicating language.