Quick disclaimer before we get into this: it is going to get weird. It is going to get next-level weird, my friends. Lock up your sense of morality. Leave normality behind. Embrace the weird (and the not so wonderful) story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in Perfume: the story of a murderer, because the only thing you might struggle with?
This novel is gross, fantastic, but truly gross. And I mean that in the most literal way. Beginning with the birth of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in 1738, Süskind pulls no punches on how gut-wrenchingly pungent eighteenth century Paris is. I give you exhibit A, a brief description of Grenouille’s mother shortly before his birth:
Grenouille’s mother, who was still a young woman, barely in her mid-twenties, and who still was quite pretty, and had almost all of her teeth in her mouth and some hair on her head and – except for gout and syphilis and a touch of consumption – suffered from no serious disease.
If you’re easily disgusted, you have been warned.
The pursuit of love begins early for Grenouille, as it would for any orphan mistaken for their mother’s fifth still-born and discarded on a pile of fish-guts. Orphan? Yes, unfortunately within just five sentences Grenouille cried out and his mother was swiftly convicted and decapitated accused of multiple infanticide, the latest being her fifth. Grenouille is immediately placed into an orphanage, where by some miracle of nature he survives rampant diseases, the threat of starvation, the cruelty of other older children which culminate in some near-death experiences, and even his wet nurse taking a dislike to him. The world, particularly in the eighteenth century, is cruel? Absolutely. But the universal dislike of Grenouille comes from something else entirely; he has no scent, no scent at all.
Although Grenouille doesn’t possess any scent of his own he has an exceptional sense of smell and a discerning mind, and the bustling streets of Paris provide him with an invaluable education. The fishmongers, the butchers, the tanners, the loggers, every new scent that wafts Grenouille’s way is a groundbreaking discovery to be catalogued in his complex lexicon of scents. Whilst his guardians and peers might think he’s a creepy kid, these early years we spend with Grenouille discovering the world at large makes him discernibly human to us.
Enter: Grenouille’s discovery of the perfume industry. Sort of.
One day, Grenouille recognises a scent that he’s never smelled before. Is it a Parisian perfumery? Unfortunately, no. It’s a girl. Grenouille meanders through the streets stalking after this new, verging on heavenly scent. In this moment, he decides that he alone must possess the ethereal beauty of her, and murders her. He sits with her as her scent slowly leaves her body, disappointed that in her final death throws the stench of fear and dread soil her natural, near-perfected scent. Grenouille then becomes fixated on the act of preserving scent, and wangles his way into the washed-up perfumer Baldini.
The apprenticeship is mutually beneficial: Baldini’s popularity skyrockets whilst Grenouille learns all about the art of distillation. But Baldini’s teaching go beyond philosophy and into the practicalities of running a perfume business. Here, Grenouille learns that whilst some scents are intoxicating and beautiful others, like dirt, are repulsive. Inadvertently Baldini socialises Grenouille with disgust, further inspiring him to seek out the most beautiful scent, to possess it.
Far from being a freak, Grenouille’s desire to to harness the most beautiful scent is the lifelong ambition of every perfumer in Paris, and his desire to possess such beauty is the lifelong pursuit of Baldini’s customers. Scent is the ultimate first impression, it’s beyond speech, beyond looks, it is intangible and at the same time innate. It has a hold over others that is so base that it often goes unnoticed, to all except Grenouille, and just like Grenouille Baldini’s coquettish customers are constantly searching for a collection of scents manipulate accordingly: to produce different kinds of love amongst friends, family, and potential lovers, passing these scents off as their own.
Love is a lie: it’s a few well-timed elements of manipulation. At least for us mere mortals and our normal noses. But for Grenouille it’s different. He can smell any number of layers of scents. It’s probably because he’s a serial killer and all that he never considers that whilst any perfume is a complex concoction of lots of ingredients, those individual ingredients are still real, organic, pure, and true in their own way. Even taking into consideration Grenouille’s clinical objectification of people as things, a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, am I right?
Grenouille eventually finds the most beautiful scent in all the world. Again, in another girl. After a lot of practice to make sure that her scent isn’t ruined when he finally murders her, the perfect opportunity arises, and at last he possesses a vile of Laure Richis. The creation of this perfume does however take a considerable amount of time, so long in fact that he is caught red-handed for murder and sentenced to death. However, shortly before he enters the square for his execution he applies a drop of the perfume, and the bloodthirsty crowd are overcome with adoration. Even Laure’s father is so overcome with love that he insists upon Grenouille’s innocence, and even asks to adopt him.
The power of Laure’s condensed scent settles over the town of Grasse, and everyone present takes part in a massive orgy. A town-wide orgy. I’m not being coy, the crowd are so loved up that everyone literally has sex with everyone else. For the whole day. Grenouille skips town that night and the whole town wakes up from the most awkward one night stand imaginable, never to mention it ever again.
Despite evading execution, being universally loved, and having a God-like control over people, the radius being one drop of perfume equals one town drugged up on love, Grenouille’s hatred at the idiocy of people grows. Now, I’m not sure I can defend the orgy, but I do feel for Laure’s father. Sure the guy just let off the murderer who killed his daughter, but something Grenouille doesn’t take into account is paternal love. Grenouille doesn’t just smell of the most beautiful scent in the world. He smells of Mr Richis’ daughter, far from contemptible he misses his daughter so dearly he wants to adopt Grenouille. Sad? Yes. Pitiable? I think so. Contemptible? Just a bit too sad to elicit contempt.
Having created the perfect scent, and escaped execution, Grenouille has simultaneously completed his only desire and reaffirmed his contempt for humanity: there is no challenge left to life, he can literally get away with murder, and bend anyone to his will.
In the most dramatic suicide I have read to date, Grenouille returns to Paris, goes to a very rough part of town and tips the entire vial over himself. The locals are so enamoured that they eat him. They eat him where he stands.
And you thought I was just warning you about the impromptu orgy when I told you that this got weird.
It’s ironic that Grenouille’s peculiar suicide method comes from his contempt for humanity when, in a very unpleasant way, he connects with his killers. The condensed essence of Laure has the same effect on the mob with their dulled senses, that Laure had on Grenouille: the mob are so overcome with love, that like Grenouille, they feel that they must possess it. They must consume it – just as Grenouille decided that he must possess Laure’s scent, and distil it into something which he alone could consume.
Love isn’t a lie but it’s so far from smelling of roses, perfume pun intended. Love as an insatiable desire to possess and consume another person may not be a pleasant thought (particularly in this novel where that idea is taken very literally), but it does have an honesty, even a purity of its own.
That being said, another quick disclaimer to end this on: can’t possibly recommend an orgy at your next town meeting, and don’t eat people.