Das Parfum (Perfume)

Author: Patrick Süskind
Genre: Fiction
165 pages

Book Review

January 5, 2023

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Das Parfum (Perfume) by Patrick SuskindAbout Das Parfum (Perfume) by Patrick Süskind

Das Parfum (Perfume) is a fiction novel originally written in German and later translated, among other languages, to English. The book is penned by German author Patrick Süskind. Süskind is gifted with an impeccable style, full of elegant writing and sensory historical details that send the reader into a trance where sense and scents flirt with envy, fear, madness, horror and eventually death, even murder. The power of a nose, the forgotten sense in essence, pardon the pun, is overwhelming. So, if those previous sentences were not enough to warn you, let me spell it out: Beware spoilers, beware horror.

Das Parfum (Perfume) The origins – A sense of rejection

The main character and villain is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. The orphan seems to be doomed from the start. While he is deprived of an individual smell, he is gifted with a formidable nose, two facts at opposite and intertwined sides of his twisted identity coin. In a deviant conclusion, the orphan makes it his individual quest to find and steal that lost individual scent for himself. Indeed, he equates the lost or absent individual scent to an absence or loss of identity. Being an orphan sends that theory in more obscure places. Slowly, an absolute “sense” of righteousness and freedom will creep in him to justifies his evil actions and blind him to the rights of others and the responsibility he has to his community.

Das Parfum (Perfume) A sense of empathy

More than a lack of identity which gives a human being a place in and a sense of belonging to a community, what Grenouille really lacks is a sense of love. While this is never explicit in the book unlike the sense of identity, it is evident. Grenouille learns from other people’s reactions, their words and their rejections that his lack of smell is a problem, an abnormality, that it gleans fear and condemnation. Beings as they grow find identity with a person or in a community that recognises them as theirs, people who accepts them, at least a minimum amount, as they are or as this crows believes they can grow into. But that acceptance is often, and certainly in this case, conditional. He has lacked from the parent who threw him in a stinking shack to the wet nurses who one after the other rejected him from their breast, to each person who pushed him away for his difference, a sense of empathy, belonging.

Das Parfum (Perfume) – A sense of direction

Constant familial and societal exclusion have a deep consequence on humans. From a baby, the people around you give you a sense of who you are, because you know first who you are and how to exist through their eyes. They give you a sense of direction before you can choose yours. Another organ that has been lately found out to help with this is, believe it or not, the sense of smell. The so-called olfactory spatial hypothesis indicates that humans’ sense of smell may subconsciously guide orientation as it does for animals and birds. ‘While of course this is physical navigation, it is not too much to abstract this to life direction. This is why this community’s fear of Grenouille’s unique difference and in effect, how they react to that fear by excluding him, is ultimately one of the strong roots of his descent.

Das Parfum (Perfume) Nature and Nurture – A sense of orientation

The nature of the birth, growth and condition of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille are clear. He was born without an individual scent and carried this handicap throughout his life. But the circumstances of his nurture too are clear. He was constantly rejected by all for the too foreign nature of his condition at every step and breath of his life, from birth.  He recognises his nose’s abilities as a gift. But without a sense of wrong (except for his lack of smell) or right which a family or community impart, whatever path his nose was going to take him, he was going to go down it to its end. While the nose gave him a sense of orientation, the crowd that  rejected him at every chance, gave him his direction. I do believe in people taking responsibility for their acts. But this is the one time where I cannot but acknowledge that the crowd, beyond a simple factor in his descent, pushed him down that path.

Das Parfum (Perfume) The Descent – a sense of disorientation

There is a way that one’s circumstances can set them on a path. It is hardly surprising when we realise how important the nose of the book’s main character is in the definition of life and beauty. The nose, as is called someone who composes perfumes, and incidently in this case, someone who is olfactively gifted, takes us on his twisted journey. His aim? To create the perfect perfume (hence the title). I cannot help but think that it is to find his scent, twice lost, once when he was a baby deprived of it, and as a grown-up where time took it away. His profession would have sufficed for his purpose, had he not realised that no amount of manual recreation would ever combine into the purity, uniqueness and identity that are encapsulated in the original scent of a human being.

Parfum Patrick SuskindDas Parfum (Perfume) A sense of empathy

The author seems to take us by the hand, by every sense, accompanying the slow descent of the main character Jean-Baptiste Grenouille to our shock and puzzlement. The parallel drawn between the reaction of the protagonist’s victims and our own, trying to untie ourselves from his bewitching grasp, is clever. There’s no point when we cannot identify with the victims, be disgusted at the perversion, our hearts sinking with each unpunished act of violence. But it is almost as hard to not see the birth of the monster, to not see where all originated and to never underestimate the power of a scent. And in all his search for a pure smell, the community’s rejection of a person lacking individual smell, the horror brings forth a smell both the reader, the monster and the crowd had forgotten in their respective quests: the stink he was originally found in. It is as if, looking to recreate the original smell he almost feel was stolen from him, he ended up recreating the stink he was abandoned in, bringing his search for the first pure smell to that of his first olfactive experience and trauma, almost hinting that he was not given the chance to smell his mother or any human before he was dumped.

Purification, purgatory

What Grenouille seeks is not any life and any beauty. What he seeks is the original smell, the smell associated with innocence and purity, a smell he was denied from birth and that made him to others, evil. His life becomes purgatory, used for his abilities and abused for everything else, what he is and emanates or in this case doesn’t. Even his perceived greed as he sucks on the wet nurses’ breasts is already that search to retrieve for himself any of these smells deem good that were taken away from him. It is as if every breath of his raison d’être becomes a search to purify his aura from the subsequent perception that others and himself had condemned him to for his inability to emit a smell. And just as these original smells were robbed from to him at birth and growing up, so we will he rob it from another by force as soon as he recognises it.

A book to reread?

To be honest, this is not a book I wanted to reread. But I recently read some reviews that made me doubt I had read it so I thought I’d revisit its pages. Must every story be told? I do not have an answer. But I know that the story of a murderer should not be romanticised. I know that it is hard to keep a neutral stance when articulating horror. But I do think that Patrick Süskind did the implausible. This is not cheap horror or horror by the numbers. This is not gratuitous blood. There is depth, tale, responsibilities, and losses at every corner, from stimuli to reactions.

Das Parfum (Perfume) by Patrick SuskindDas Parfum (Perfume) – A classic horror

This is horror without jump scares or disfigured characters. Even the main character’s name is Grenouille (frog in French) not Toad, even though his acts might lead our own imaginations to distort his looks. He is an orphan as a matter of fact but this does not seem to be linked directly to what he became. The absence of a sense of smell which he equates to the absence of identity is largely compensated by his nose ability. It is a personal choice and obsession to wander the darker forks of his path. The horrible for me in this tale is the sense (sorry, I can’t help it) that this is anyone’s tale when the opportunity to fill a hole they’ve felt is turned into a personal right that does not acknowledge responsibility to others. This parallels the horror of the crowd exercising their right to dismiss him without taking any responsibility in his eventual descent to hell and the murder that he perpetuated.

Das Parfum (Perfume) – The story of murderers

To me, this is not the story of a murderer who sought his lost smell and identity to this quest’s extreme end. This is another story of the butterfly effect of fear. While no one can tell if Grenouille would have developed into a monster, had he been treated from birth as a human being, the intertwined right and responsibility of every community lies in ensuring that everyone of their members is included and fits into their society. This story is exhaustive in these many lost opportunities. We might think that it is the story of a time (18th century) but it resounds even today as the fear of the ones alienates the others. This is possibly recognised, seeing the book’s many interpretations but let us hope these have kept the essence of it: not just the horror and the overwhelming olfactive sense but the exclusion from birth, the constant rejection, the lack of direction.

Das Parfum (Perfume) – Verdict

The horror in this book goes beyond the final act into the realisation that the immense talent of Patrick Süskind in his writing style and sensory sense of historical detailling has sucked us non-stop into the story of a murderer whose implicit sense of exclusion and loss of identity become the stimulus for a quest in which he finds the smell of which his person was deprived on another and proceeds to rob it from them. This is a horror drama that could not be less painted by the number, more timeless than its clear placement in history would suggest or more beautiful than the horror that it depicts would suggest. This is the story of not one murderer but many. This is the story of the power of the forgotten sense and its hidden powers. A 10 out of 10 for me.

Note: Read in German (Das Parfum, Patrick Süskind) long ago, then in French (Le Parfum de Patrick Süskind) and now in English.