“The persuasive power of an odour cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.”
Perfume is a story in which one sense prevails above all others. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born in the putrid fish markets of Paris to a mother who has already had numerous stillborn babies. Assuming the birth to be another stillborn, she begins to leave the scene. As the baby lets out a cry, she is arrested and subsequently executed. The orphaned baby is given to the Church and it is soon discovered there is something unusual about the child: he has no scent and an acute sense of smell.
Smell doesn’t usually have such a pivotal role in narration. It is a sense often neglected in favour of more visual descriptions, but in Perfume it is always at the forefront of the story. Grenouille’s entire life revolves around this one sense. He is so sensitive to it that all other things fall into the background. He doesn’t perceive people, flowers or animals, only the odour they admit.
Suskind presents this character as a parasite, a tic feeding off the greed of others, exploiting them for his own ends. The depiction of this character is often repulsive, so much so that I struggled to read paragraphs because of my unease. Grenouille inevitably goes in search of the perfect scent and his disregard for anything outside of his olfactory world means he will stop at nothing to obtain it.
I found the premise interesting and the olfactory description insightful as both a reader and writer, but I felt the plot was initially slow in gaining momentum and then it charged towards the end when I would have liked to revel in the darker chaos. For me, the ending was a little hard to swallow.