Book Review: Perfume

Perfume by Patrick Suskind (Trans. John E. Woods)

Recommended to those who liked Exquisite Corpse, and to those who liked the word-play of The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

Perfume is at its heart a serial killer book, with a touch of a sci-fi twist. It follows the development of Grenouille, a man with no scent in 18th century France. He becomes a perfumer and eventually a killer, but that’s not the important part of the book to me.

For me, it was the richness of the experience that was presented. It is a sensual feast of scent and scent alone. Grenouille explores his world through his nose and every piece and place is robustly presented from this odd point of view. He is a brilliant and dangerous creature with the most gorgeous perception of the world. He can smell pheremones. He can distill the most delicate scents and create scents that manipulate the people around him. (This is the scifi.)

As he develops his scents he learns to use his talents to increase his position in the world. It isn’t a pretty story. The world is not a nice place and Grenouille is not nice. He’s not good. He’s not perfect. But I have a hard time as defining him as purely evil. For all his true sociopathology, I didn’t hate him. I didn’t love him, but I didn’t loathe him in any way. He does not connect to humans on a most basic nature. In Perfume this is expressed by his lack of scent. In our world, it would be lack of conscience.

Grenouille has one passion and that is the scent he loves above all others. Love.

It’s hard to hate someone who craves love. Even though he cannot understand what it is.

I have only one argument with the book. The last chapter. It feels tacked on to me. I was content to end it before then. The last chapter screams to me that someone (an agent or editor or translator) told the author that they *had* to add a scene. It’s not a pleasant scene and that too smacks of a ticked off author. I understand the reasoning behind having it, I just don’t agree that it was needed.

Still, I have no idea how they managed to make a book that is all about a non-visual conception of the world into a movie. And, in all honesty, I enjoyed the book far too much to spoil it by seeing the movie.


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