Wednesday, November 19, 2008

book review: "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" by Patrick Suskind

PERFUME: The Story of a Murderer
Patrick Suskind

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was born with a gift – an extraordinary sense of smell. This enables him to become the greatest, if unrecognized, perfumer in eighteenth-century France. Yet Grenouille was born without a smell of his own that would mark him as human. Thus he sought to create the perfect scent that would make men and women fall on his feet and worship him – a scent made from virgins on the brink of womanhood.

Patrick Suskind successfully evokes the atmosphere of eighteenth-century Paris by describing the stench of its streets littered with refuse and the odor of its thousands of humans living in close quarters, and he contrasts these with fragrances from the city’s perfumeries that intrigue the reader’s nose – roses and orange blossoms and jasmine and storax… In the middle he places the young Grenouille, eager to experience and catalog in his mind all smells, good and bad, in existence.

Later Grenouille turns this passion into the creation of the perfect scent, regardless of the means needed to achieve it. In doing so he seeks affirmation of his identity and acceptance from the people who in the past ignored him at best and used him for their own ends at worst. He realizes, too late, that his hatred for the same people has surpassed his need for their acceptance, and his success becomes worthless.

Instead of hatred or revulsion, one feels pity for Grenouille and the circumstances that shaped him into what he is. And one is left with a question – Does the need to please the self ultimately stem from the need to please others?


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