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Book Review : A Monster Who Follows His Nose

October 01, 1986|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Perfume, the Story of a Murder by Patrick Sueskind, translated from German by John E. Woods (Knopf: $16.95)

"Perfume" is chilly and lush; an ingenious story, told well though sometimes pretentiously, about a most exotic monster. The monstrosity is not original nor even terribly interesting. There is only one shade of black, after all. What is original is the form it takes.

As vampires seek blood and succubi, warm sleepers, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille seeks smells; particularly those of certain pubescent girls. He collects them and, unfortunately--for the girls; not for Grenouille, who doesn't care--collecting means killing.

Grenouille's monstrosity is double. From birth he lacked any odor at all. His pursuit of odors is more than a passion. It is his life-principle. It replaces hunger, sexuality and self-preservation. He does not feel physical pain, let alone any kind of moral passion or compassion.

Patrick Sueskind, a German writer, sets Grenouille in 18th-Century Paris. He is born amid stench--the author goes into gloating detail about the effluents of that sewerless city--as the bastard son of a fishwife. She tries to kill him and is caught and executed. The church authorities who take the baby in hand him over to a wet nurse who soon hands him back him because his lack of smell gives her the horrors.

He has this effect on him everyone until late in his career, when he invents a perfume made of cat excrement, cheese rind, sardine oil and other things, that approximates the general smell of humanity. He has, of course, become a master perfumer; a perfumer, in fact, such as the world has never known.

Sent to work with a tanner as a boy, Grenouille wanders about Paris, sniffing and building up an enormous mental archive of smells. He can smell weather, glass, emotions and the age and hair color of a girl in a dark alley. He kills a redhaired adolescent because her smell is the closest thing to perfection he will know until later in life, at the climax of his career. He can only remember the smell, though; what he yearns for is to be able to reproduce it.

So he apprentices himself to a perfumer and his supernatural nose makes his master's fortune. Not only can Grenouille reproduce any perfume he is given; but he can devise new and irresistible varieties. As for him, he learns the craft of transferring the smells of things into essences and perfumes. In Paris, he practices distillation; later, he goes to Grasse, France's perfume capital, and studies the more complex methods of "effleurage," or oil transfers.

He invents wool and doorknob perfumes. He makes essence of puppy. The human smell he produces for himself allows him to mingle naturally with people. He produces variations: he can make himself smell humble, imperious, pathetic. What he is working toward, of course, is the arch-smell that will make him master of all mankind.

Twenty-five adolescent girls are found dead in the region before he is caught. By then he has produced his supreme perfume. Its effect is to make the judges, the executioner and the crowd that has come to see him die, dissolve into an orgy of love. At the end, he is literally loved to death.

Grenouille's story is odd and interesting. Suspense builds up fairly steadily, particularly at the end. Sueskind imparts considerable sensuality to his protagonist's olfactory transports. And there is real fascination in the detailed accounts of how perfume is made.

As an entertainment, despite an ornate writing style that can become self-conscious, "Perfume" has some real merit. It seems to want to accomplish more, though; and does not succeed.

Despite its particularities, Grenouille's monstrosity does not manage to stand for any larger sense of the estranged human condition, as I think it is intended to. He is no grand monster but a petty one; small-spirited and eventually tedious. Sueskind attempts to create a prodigy of hatred, a larger-than-life Caliban; but Grenouille's misanthropy never lifts much above ranting.

Sueskind gilds his story with an occasional philosophical lick or two; but essentially he exploits his creation instead of exploring it. There is a certain factitious profundity to "Perfume," and plenty of cleverness, but the effect is rather hollow and rather cheap.

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