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Obsessed with Scent
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
by Patrick Süskind

Reviewed by
Birgit Reinert

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It is said that the average human nose can pick up some 4,000 different smells. Many become triggers for memories—freshly baked bread, an ex-girlfriend's hair in the warm sun, old socks left for three days in wet boots.

But smells do more than confer pleasure or tell us that meat has turned rancid. In the creepily disturbing and occasionally repulsive novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, first published almost twenty years ago, Patrick Süskind explores the idea that our ability to smell—and the ability of others to smell us—is essential to our humanity.

In fact, if one takes the message of this book to heart, the absence of scent and an aberrant and exaggerated sense of smell can lead to social isolation so extreme that it can drive a scentless victim to amorality and murder.

The most gifted human nose recognizes about 10,000 scents. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the main character in Perfume, has just such a nose. Grenouille can recall every odor he has ever encountered; he smells a worm in an apple, money hidden behind brick, and people blocks away.

Perfume is so full of smells that they seem to rise from the pages of the book.

Süskind seduces the reader's olfactory imagination with sensuous descriptions of jasmine, attar of roses, the Florentine flasks, and copper kettles used to reduce flowers and herbs to their essential oils. The level of detail is remarkable, both for the book's fairly slim size and the apparent lack of repetition.

The art of perfume making.

Set up as a fictional biography, the novel opens in eighteenth-century Paris, where "the streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots."

Into this world, Grenouille is born. His mother abandons him, leaving him under a table at a Paris fish market, and he grows up in an orphanage.

As a baby, Grenouille doesn't smell the way babies should (“like caramel”). Although he has an exceptional nose, he himself gives off no bodily odor whatsoever. Still, everyone he meets finds him in some way repellent. “The young Grenouille … gave the world nothing but his dung—no smile, no cry, no glimmer in the eye, not even his own scent.”

He learns different smells around him as most children learn the alphabet, or grasp numbers, and he spends his days identifying and ordering the scents in his world. His obsession with smell is absolute. He doesn't care for people and cares very little about himself.

At the age of 15, Grenouille becomes an apprentice to a Parisian master perfumer and learns the art of dissecting and isolating scents.

One day, Grenouille's nose is assailed by the most wondrous and magical perfume—the scent of a girl on the brink of puberty. When he resolves to bottle the maiden's scent, the obsession becomes deadly. Without leaving a trace or a scent, Grenouille escapes the murder scene.

After that first crime, Grenouille understood his destiny: He, Jean-Baptiste, the fishmonger's bastard, was to be “the greatest perfumer of all time.” The goal and purpose of his life became nothing less than to “revolutionize the odoriferous world.”

For the most part, Süskind holds the reader in suspense through this gripping page-turner.

When Grenouille is beset by demonic dreams, his ambition takes a grandiose and sinister bent as he develops a plan to rule mankind:

“People could close their eyes to greatness, to horrors, to beauty, and their ears to melodies or deceiving words. But they could not escape scent. For scent was a brother of breath. … He who ruled scent ruled the hearts of men.”

Grenouille's immediate quest is the ultimate and perfect scent—the scent of love—that will give him irresistible power over others. With creepy dispassion, Grenouille kills 25 young virgins and wraps their bodies in specially oiled cloths that capture their odors. The result is “an aura more radiant and more effective than any human being had ever possessed before him.”

His triumph is brief. Grenouille realizes that “what he had always longed for—that other people should love him—became at the moment of its achievement unbearable.”

Much of the novel stays vaguely within the realm of plausibility, but Grenouille's final scene takes a turn for the macabre. The story ends in something of a mess: a hellish orgy of cannibalistic desire.

The book was first published in German in 1985. When critics and readers caught scent of Perfume, it became an international bestseller and has since been translated into 37 different languages, including the English translation by John E. Woods, which was Süskind's first book to appear in English .

Perfume has maintained its popularity. This year, the British public has voted Süskind's book one of the nation's 100 best-loved novels as part of the BBC's “The Big Read.”

And fans of the novel can look forward to the movie version. After years of hesitation, Süskind has given the go-ahead for a film version of the novel to Munich-based film producer Bernd Eichinger (“The Name of the Rose”). No release date has been set.


Birgit Reinert,  a former associate editor of GNN, is a freelance writer who  lives in Berlin.

Süskind, Patrick. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Vintage International, New York, N.Y., 2001. The English translation from the German original was first published in hardcover by Alfred A. Knopf in 1986.

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