First edition (German)
|Cover artist||Antoine Watteau detail from
"Nymphe et satyre", 1715-16
|Genre||Horror fiction, mystery, magic realism, absurd|
Alfred A. Knopf (US)
Hamish Hamilton (UK)
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|Pages||263 p. (UK hardback edition)|
|ISBN||0-241-11919-7 (UK hardback edition)|
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a 1985 literary historical cross-genre novel (originally published in German as Das Parfum) by German writer Patrick Süskind. The novel explores the sense of smell and its relationship with the emotional meaning that scents may carry. It is a story of identity, communication and the morality of the human spirit.
The story centers on Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an unloved 18th-century French orphan who is born with an exceptional sense of smell, being able to distinguish a vast range of scents in the world around him. Grenouille becomes a perfumer but is drawn to murder when he encounters a young girl with an unsurpassed wondrous scent. Later, living in isolation in a mountain cave, he is shaken after some years to discover his own complete lack of scent; the discovery draws him back to society in search of scents that are capable of changing how he will be perceived by others, and eventually to learn the highest level of the art in the Grasse region of France. Once again he encounters a remarkable scent from a teenage girl, and this time engages in serial murder in order to practice the preserving of her scent with his perfumier's art. He is caught red-handed after this murder, but his sentence is not carried out, because he has by now developed a scent that causes people to fall in helpless awe and adoration of him. However this power does not bring him happiness and he realizes he is a misanthrope - someone who hates people, and he is left disillusioned. Finally he returns to Paris, where he is torn to pieces by a crowd who are so drawn to him due to his scent, that they became compelled to obtain and consume pieces of him.
With translations into 48 languages and over 20 millions copies sold to date worldwide, 'Perfume' is one of the largest book sales among 20th Century German novels. The title remained in bestseller lists for about 9 years, and received almost unanimously positive national and international critical acclaim. The novel was translated into English by John E. Woods and won the PEN Translation Prize in 1987.
Grenouille (French for "frog") is born in Paris, France in 1738; his mother is almost immediately tried for previous infanticide leaving him an orphan. He is fostered but is a difficult solitary child and eventually apprenticed to a tanner. Unknown to the world around him, he has a remarkable sense of smell, and an extraordinary ability to discern odors; as a result he can perform apparently magical feats such as identifying bad vegetables by the worms they contain, or visitors as they approach the house, and can navigate in total darkness by the smell of objects around him.
On a day when he had memorized nearly all the smells of the city, he is surprised by a smell quite unlike the dirty, coarse ones he is familiar with. Entranced, he traces it with his nose, and finds that the source of this scent is a young, virginal girl just passing puberty. Feeling her scent to be a revelation and that he must possess it, he kills her and stays with her body until the scent has left it. In his quest to learn more of the art of scent-making, he becomes apprenticed to a once great perfumer, Baldini, and proves himself a wunderkind although this is not revealed to anyone except Baldini. Baldini eventually reveals to him that there are techniques other than distillation that can be used to preserve a wider range of odours, which can be found in the heartland of the perfumier's craft, in the region of Grasse, in the French Riviera.
On his way to Grasse, Grenouille travels the countryside and discovers that he is disgusted with the scent of humanity. Avoiding habitations, he comes instead to live in a mountain cave for many years, However his peace is broken when he realizes after some years that he himself has no scent. Travelling to Montpellier with a fabricated story about being kidnapped and kept in a cave to account for his appearance, he creates a body odour for himself from everyday materials, and finds that his new "disguise" tricks people into thinking that it is the scent of a human; he is now accepted by society instead of given a wide berth. Humanity being fooled by a simple scent, his hate turns into contempt. He realizes that it is within his ability to develop scents described as "superhuman" and "angelic", that will affect in an unprecedented way, how other people perceive and feel him.
Reaching Grasse, he trains in the arts of scent extraction and preservation and one day encounters a second scent that is even more inspiring to him than his original victim. He decides this time that he will seek to preserve the scent physically and not just in his memory, and begins a campaign of serial killing of teenage girls to practice keeping and preserving their scent - the victims are not otherwise molested beyond the removal of their hair for scent preservation. The father of his target realizes his daughter must be the goal of the murderer's campaign and telling nobody, takes her to a place of safety, but Grenouille follows them by following her scent, and when they stop for the night, he finally kills her and successfully preserves her scent.
He is caught red-handed shortly afterwards and sentenced to death. However on the way to his execution he wears a new scent he has created, that causes awe and adoration in others, and although the evidence of his guilt is absolute, the crowd are so drawn to him, and a belief in the innocence he now exudes, that he is freed; even the victim's father asks if he would consider being adopted as his son. Grenouille however now realizes how much he hates people, and that even this degree of control does not make him happy. Returning to Paris, he is torn to pieces by a crowd who are so drawn to him due to his scent, that they became compelled to obtain and consume pieces of him. The story ends with the reflection of those in the crowd, who are left embarrassed by their own action, but are also left "uncommonly proud. For the first time they had done something out of Love."
Characters (in order of appearance)
In France, before meeting Baldini:
- Grenouille's mother – Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was her fifth baby. She had claimed her first four were stillbirths or "semi-stillbirths". In her mid-twenties, with most of her teeth left, "some hair on her head", and a touch of gout, syphilis and consumption (tuberculosis), she was still quite pretty.
- Jean-Baptiste Grenouille – Protagonist. Born 17 July 1738.
- Jeanne Bussie – One of Grenouille's many wet-nurses. She is the first person to realise he has no scent and claims he is sucking all the life out of her.
- Father Terrier – He is in charge of the church's charities and distribution of its money to the poor and needy. He first thinks Grenouille is a cute baby, but once Grenouille begins to sniff Terrier, the priest is highly disturbed and sends the baby to a boarding house.
- Madame Gaillard – She has no sense of smell, due to being hit across the face with a poker in her younger years, so she does not know that Grenouille has no scent. In charge of a boarding house, her goal in life is to save enough money to have a proper death and funeral. Madame's poor sense of smell and ignorance about Grenouille's gifts, coupled with his assistance in finding her hidden money through his olfactory ability, caused Madame to believe he had second sight (psychic). She believed that people with second sight bring bad luck and death. Out of this fear, Madame sells Grenouille to the tanner, Grimal. She loses all her money in old age, dies a miserable death in the Hôtel Dieu (Hotel of God) and is not even buried after her death, but rather thrown into a mass grave.
- Children at the Boarding House – They are repulsed by Grenouille and even try, in vain, to suffocate him with rags and blankets while Grenouille is asleep.
- Grimal – A tanner who lives near the river in the rue de la Mortellerie. Grenouille works for him from age eight into his early youth until Baldini pays for him to be released. With this immense new income of money, he wastes it on an alcoholic binge; his drunkenness causes him to fall into to a river and die.
- The Plum Girl – Her natural scent is that of sea breeze, water lilies, and apricot blossoms; it is a rich, perfectly balanced and magical scent. She has red hair and wears a gray, sleeveless dress. She is halving plums when Grenouille kills her as his first victim.
- Giuseppe Baldini – An old traditional perfumer with his once-great reputation now fading. He yearns for the old days when tastes in perfume did not change much over the decades, and is angry at what he feels are upstarts in the fast-moving perfume trade of his later life. Secretly he knows that he never had a gift for creating and analyzing new scents; rather he had obtained the recipes from which he made his reputation, from other sources. Lacking a gift for it, he merely knows the art of perfumery and maintains a strict mystique about it to conceal the truth. His shop is so intoxicating that it scares away most potential customers; it is located in the middle of the Pont-au-Change bridge. He allows Grenouille's plea to demonstrate the copying of a competitor's perfume and is about to throw Grenouille out when he realizes the copy is a faithful one, and then tests an exceptionally improved version of the original created on the spot by Grenouille. Recognizing Grenouille's genius for scent, he buys Grenouille from Grimal as his apprentice and starts to rebuild his dying business. He becomes rich and famous once again from the new perfumes that Grenouille creates for him. He ends up giving Grenouille journeyman papers, which will help Grenouille be accepted as a perfumer in his future travels. After Grenouille leaves him, his house and warehouses plunge into the river below as the bridge finally collapses, and the recipes he has taken for hundreds of Grenouille's perfumes are lost.
- Chénier – Baldini's assistant and apprentice for over 30 years. He is somewhat younger than Baldini. He knows Baldini is talentless, but still boasts Baldini's skills in the hope that one day he will inherit Baldini's perfume shop.
- Pélissier – Never actually appears in novel. He is only talked about because he is considered the most innovative perfumer in Paris, despite not having any formal training.
In Pierrefort, after emerging from his isolation in the mountains:
- Taillade-Espinasse – Marquis, liege lord of a town of Pierrefort and a member of parliament, is an amateur scientist who develops indulgent and ridiculous theses (fluidal theory), which he supposedly demonstrates on Grenouille—feeding him, providing him with new clothes and giving him the opportunity to create a perfume. The Marquis dies soon after Grenouille's "disappearance" while pursuing his fluidal theory by attempting to live alone on a secluded mountain.
In Grasse, France:
- Madame Arnulfi – A lively, black-haired woman of around thirty. She has been widowed for almost a year. She owns the perfume business of her dead husband and has a journeyman named Druot, who is also her lover. She hires Grenouille as her second journeyman.
- Dominique Druot – Arnulfi's journeyman and lover. He is the size of a Hun and is of average intelligence. Grenouille works under him as second journeyman. Druot is later hanged for Grenouille's crimes.
- Antoine Richis – Second consul and the richest man in Grasse, Laure's father.
- Laure Richis – A beautiful red-headed girl, daughter of Antoine Richis, the second girl whose scent is perceived as demanding capture by Grenouille, and his final victim.
- A film adaptation, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, co-written and directed by Tom Tykwer (who also composed the film score), premiered in Germany on 14 September 2006.
- A Russian musical adaptation of the novel, Perfumer, premiered on 5 December 2010 in Moscow. Composer and singer Igor Demarin received Süskind's approval after communicating with a representative of his for two years.
- The song "Scentless Apprentice", by the American grunge band Nirvana, was inspired by Perfume. It appears on their 1993 album In Utero. The band's singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain often described the novel as one of his favourite books, in an interview on August 10, 1993 in Seattle, Washington.
- The song "Herr Spiegelmann" from the Portuguese gothic-doom metal band Moonspell contains an excerpt from the book.
- The song "Red Head Girl" by French downtempo duo Air is inspired by Perfume.
- The song "Du riechst so gut" (German for "You smell so good") by Rammstein was inspired by the book, which is one of lead singer Till Lindemann's favourite books.
- Marilyn Manson credits the novel as one of the inspirations behind the title of his second album, Smells Like Children.
- The episode "Sense Memory" of the television show Criminal Minds bears many similarities to the novel.
- The song "Nearly Witches (Ever Since We Met)" by Panic! at the Disco is inspired by Perfume.
- Süskind, Patrick. Perfume. Trans. John E. Woods. New York: Vintage International, 1986.