Saturday, October 19, 2013

Sara's Library: Perfume

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind
Original German edition: Diogenes 1985 
First US edition: Alfred Knopf 1987
Translated from German by John E. Woods
World Fantasy Award for Best Novel 1987
PEN Translation Prize 1987

Summary from Goodreads: "In the slums of eighteenth-century France, the infant Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born with one sublime gift: an absolute sense of smell. As a boy, he lives to decipher the odors of Paris, and apprentices himself to a prominent perfumer who teaches him the ancient art of mixing precious oils and herbs. 

But Grenouille's genius is such that he is not satisfied to stop there, and he becomes obsessed with capturing the smells of objects such as brass doorknobs and frest-cut wood. Then one day he catches a hint of a scent that will drive him on an ever-more-terrifying quest to create the "ultimate perfume"—the scent of a beautiful young virgin."

While Perfume was awarded the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, it is not what one generally expects of fantasy.  There are no mythical beasts, no supernatural events, or the dealings of gods and men.  Instead, it reads much more like a fairy tale with only the vaguest hints that any of its events or characters are unlikely to exist in our reality.  Like a fairy tale, we suspend our disbelief and accept that in the world in which Grenouille dwells this is simply how things are.  Grenouille's superhuman sense of smell is likely the reason the work has cemented its place in the realm of the fantastic, as well as one scene near the end where a scent he has concocted completely overwhelms the will of those in its proximity.  Those two items aside, the novel reads like an historical mystery.

What made this such a notable work was definitely the strength of Mr. Suskind's descriptions.  With a protagonist who understands the world best through scent it was integral that the writing be able to convey a sense of olfactory image, and Mr. Suskind does a stunning job doing just that.  Whether describing fragrances and perfumes or stenches and odors, the prose truly brings Grenouille's world to life.  

With Grenouille portrayed as such a loner and outsider, it could be difficult for some to connect with the text; however, the dry humor and comic peripheral characters will keep most interested, if not the writing itself.  Although the story descends into rather grim territory (murdering virgin girls to create the perfect scent), the novel never feels like horror, instead often feeling as light as one of Grenouille's perfumes.

A genre-defying work showcasing tremendous writing, I must recommend Perfume to any with an interest in the fantastic, the dark, or the historical.

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