Born with an acute sense of smell but no biologically produced body odor of his own, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille experiences the world through his nose. He knows every person, animal, shop, and street in Paris by their unique scent.
This peculiar gift drives Father Terrier, the monk under whose guardianship Grenouille was placed as an infant, to turn him over to Madame Gaillard who runs a boarding house for abandoned children, fearing if he does not rid himself of Grenuouille the boy will sniff out all of his sins. It is what leads Madame Gaillard, after years of caring for all Grenouille’s physical needs, to sell him to a tanner named Grimal as a child laborer, sensing that there is something not quite right about him. It is what convinces local perfumer Giuseppe Baldini to hire him away from Grimal so that he may use Grenouille’s talents for his own gain.
Grenouille’s entire identity is built upon his ability to mentally catalogue and re-create scents. He remembers each and every smell he has ever encountered. He dissects them, reducing each complex odor to its individual components. Without a home or even a compassionate guardian Grenouille’s sense of smell is the only thing he can truly rely on. It anchors him in an increasingly unpredictable world. But it isn’t enough for Grenouille to experience every scent in existence. He wants to be loved and admired for his talent, and vows to earn that admiration by creating the most irresistible perfume ever.
This allegorical tale about the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler is hypnotic in its depravity. Honestly, I’m not a big fan of allegory. I think it is easier and more enjoyable to probe a text when the subject matter is clear. Perfume, however, is so deftly written it can be enjoyed as the allegory that it is, or simply as a story of suspense. There are depths to mine if the reader wishes to, but it is not cricual to do so.
Grenouille is your run of the mill sociopath. He hates everyone and hasn’t an ounce of love or compassion in him. He values people for what they can do to help him reach his ultimate goal, that’s all. I can’t say I liked Grenouille, but even so, I wanted to know what would happen to him. I found his heartlessness and single-minded determination fascinating.
The book is full of people just as despicable as Grenouille. Madame Gaillard treats the children under her care with cool indifference, her only goal in life to save up enough money to buy an annuity so she might grow old and die in private rather than in the cramped Hotel-Deu as her husband did. Grimal purposely leaves the most hazardous tasks to child laborers as they are more disposable than skilled workers. Baldini, a master perfumer though he is, is barely competent and owes most of his success to the ingenuity of others. None of them are the least bit likable, yet I could not put the book down. I had to know what happened to them.
And what happens is grusome. Every life that Grenouille touches comes to a bad end. Madame Gaillard dies of old age in the Hotel-Deu just as she feared she would. Grimal drowns in a river after passing out drunk on the shore. Baldini’s house collapses while he’s asleep inside. Each is destroyed by their obsessions and punished for their sins. Call him Grenouille or call him Hitler, either way he can be seen as the personification of our worst human impulses. His behavior and the way others react to it shed light on aspects of the human psyche we’d rather ignore.
Suskind’s decision to tell the story in a dramatic third person voice distances the reader from the story. I never felt as if I were in the story or observing it like a fly on the wall. I was always very aware of being spoken to. This deliberate stylistic choice allows Suskind to manipulate the reader, making him feel emotionally removed from the story as it grows ever more bizarre and disturbing.
It wasn’t until the explosive finale that I realized what Suskind was up to. He made me enjoy a story full of morally corrupt people, told it in a way that made me feel indifferent to behaviors that should have repelled me. He drew me in and, in doing so, made me an accomplice to the depravity. He turned me into a witness who did nothing to stop the crime. I got the feeling Suskind wanted me to feel guilty for having enjoyed the book, just as all of Germany continues to be made to feel guilty for allowing the rise of Nazism.
Though I was unable to emotionally invest in the novel, and that reduced the amount of enjoyment I got out of it, Perfume is worth reading, if only to admire the masterful technique with which Suskind weaves his tale and manipulates the reader.