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Patrick Süskind: Das Parfum (Perfume)

Süskind prefers, like many writers, to write about outsiders and this book is certainly about an outsider. It is concerned, as the title indicates, with scent, with smell, and, in particular, what they mean for human communication. It is set in 18th century France.

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (grenouille is the French for frog) is born in 1738 in a smelly fish market. His mother abandons him but his cries attract passers-by and he is saved, while his mother is sentenced to death for attempted infanticide. He is passed from wet nurse to wet nurse, each one rejecting him, though she is not always clear why. The real reason is that he does not smell. Eventually, he ends up in an orphanage with Madame Gaillard. As she lost her sense of smell when a child, she does not notice his lack of scent. He is rejected by others and he soon develops reciprocal feelings, disliking his fellow man. However, though he has no scent, he has a superb sense of smell, learning language, for example, by associating words with scents. When he is eight, Mme Gaillard sells him to Monsieur Grimal, a tanner, who allows him to wander the streets after work. It is here that he discovers a wide variety of scents. However, there is one scent he is particularly attracted to and it turns out to belong to a beautiful young woman. To preserve the scent, he kills her but, of course, the scent goes when she dies.

After Grimal, he manages to become apprenticed to the perfumer, Giuseppe Baldini, and soon learns from Baldini, creating scents that make Baldini famous. However, Grenouille wants to develop his own techniques and sets out for Grasse. Before getting to Grasse, he lives alone in a cave, away from humans and it is here that he realises that he has no scent. Determined to get his own scent, he manages to do this and then heads off for Grasse. He again smells the perfect scent, though this time on a different young woman. He works with Mme Arnulfi, to perfect his technique. When he has what he considers a suitable technique he sets out to use it on the young woman. However, Süskind’s ending is not entirely predictable.

Süskind is certainly not conventional and has attracted a huge following, with this book, which has been translated into numerous languages. It is about scent and communication but it is also about morality and love and about who we are and what defines us. Süskind’s skill is both to convey, as far as it is possible in a book, this idea of scent as communication but also to not judge Grenouille but to present, as it were, his case. We feel that he will pay the ultimate price for his crimes but Süskind keeps us guessing to the end as to how this will happen.

Publishing history

First published 1985 by Diogenes
First published in English in 1986 by Knopf
Translated by John E. Woods