Saturday, April 24, 2010

Girl on Book Action: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind
ISBN: 0-375-72584-9


In the slums of 18th-century Paris a baby is born and abandoned, passed over to monks as a charity case. But the monks can find no one to care for the child – he is too demanding, and he doesn’t smell the way a baby should smell. In fact, he has no scent at all.

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille clings to life with an iron will, growing into a dark and sinister young man who, although he has no scent of his own possesses an incomparable sense of smell. Never having known human kindness, Grenouille lives only to decipher the odors around him, the complex swirl of smells – ashes and leather, rancid cheese and fresh-baked bread – that is Paris. He apprentices himself to a perfumer, and quickly masters the ancient art of mixing flowers, herbs and oils. Then one day he catches a faint whiff of something so exquisite he is determined to capture it. Obsessed, Grenouille follows the scent until he locates its source – a beautiful young virgin on the brink of womanhood. As his demented quest to create the “ultimate perfume” leads him to murder, we are caught up in a rising storm of terror until his final triumph explodes all of its horrifying consequences. Told with dazzling narrative brilliance, Perfume is a hauntingly powerful tale of unnatural passion and sensual depravity.

Preface: This week we once again offer up a combination post, where I review the book and Wren shall review the movie version of Perfume. These reviews are also part of the vampire reviews (I explain this connection in more detail in my actual review, so keep reading). Now onwards to the actual post!

My Thoughts:

This was the second time that I’ve read this novel, but the first time I read it was some six years ago. I have to admit, I’m not sure how I feel about this book, regardless of having read it more than once.

I’m just going to get into it without much preamble. I think the problem I have with this story is that there is nothing human that allows the reader to relate to what is happening. Grenouille is a character with whom you can’t really sympathize and none of the other characters are even present enough to act as anchors. Now, you might argue that not having a character to be emotionally involved with allows for critical thought regarding the material being presented, and you might be right. However, I think that it is possible to write emotionally engaging fiction that also makes readers think.

The novel is well written, although I wonder if maybe some of the impact was lost in the translation (the book was written in German). I always felt as though I was skimming on the top of the narrative without really being able to dive below the surface. Stylistically speaking there were also a lot of long passages of descriptions of different smells, which I found to be a little bit too much as these sections sometimes just ended up being long lists of things.

Perhaps the language and the characterization combined were what made me feel as though I was always held too far outside of the narrative and so didn't enjoy the book as much as I might have liked. I suppose a book needs at least one of the two to make me feel engaged with what I'm reading and this one delivered neither.

Probably the most interesting exercise with regard to this novel is reading Grenouille as a sort of vampire: he doesn’t have a scent of his own so he has to steal scent from objects and ultimately people in order to survive. Rather than killing for blood, he is killing for scent. Given my interest in vampires, this kind of reading is appealing to me (and the possibility of this reading is also why this novel and movie are included in the material of the vampire class I took some years ago).

My overall sentiment is actually that I was bored reading most of the time, and I can’t tell if that has to do with having read the book before, or if I was just bored in general. No matter how hard I try to be interested in the ideas presented regarding human nature, the importance of something like scent, nature versus nurture I just can’t get excited about any of it. I thought that a character with such disdain for humanity might be an engaging perspective, but I was wrong. Perhaps I’m just not an olfactory person and that may detract from my involvement with the topic. Or maybe it’s just that it’s very difficult to write a novel where the primary sense is that of smell, because the written word might not be adequate in conveying this sense. I just can’t tell exactly where the problem is, so I’m left feeling bored and vaguely annoyed.

No comments:

Post a Comment