In what I read as a typical example of literary postmodernism, Perfume is a projection of concerns with personal identity and literary persona onto the themes and characters of the novel. Set in 18th century France, Perfume tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a physically and emotionally abused orphan whose supernatural sense of smell guides him in a perverse search for the lost origin of his identity. A genius of odors, Grenouille himself lacks a personal odor, signifying an absence of individual identity.
As he discovers his olfactory virtuosity, Grenouille becomes increasingly obsessed with inventing new fragrances, particularly his own, which he attempts to create artificially by extracting and blending the corporeal scents of young virginal women he murders. Grenouille’s great hope is to create an ideal perfume that will give him the magical essence of identity. Despite his hatred of fellow humans, the mad perfumer is driven by a desire for the attention and affection of others, who are compelled under the spell of his ideal perfume to love him unconditionally. At the moment of his crowning achievement, however, Grenouille realizes that the aura of identity created by his magic perfume is an illusion and that it has been hate rather than love that drove him to become a genius of perfuming. After this epiphany, Grenouille returns to the place of his origin in a Parisian slum and ends his own story by drenching himself with the ultimate perfume and surrendering to a maenadic mob of murderers and thieves. Crazed by his seductive perfume, they dismember and devour him, piecemeal.
Perfume can be read as an indictment of Enlightenment rationality, as an allegory of the fascist mind, or simply as a cynical postmodern pastiche that serves you titillating but derivative kitsch. But whatever the view of the novel’s thematic intentions, Perfume’s rich intertextuality is enjoyable. Suskind’s parasitic perfumer can be seen as a self-reflexive metaphor for the postmodernist’s epigonal guilt and so failed to perceive the ironic (and more accurately postmodern) implication that all writing is an assimilation of previous writing, just as all identity is an assimilation of previous models of subjectivity. By foregrounding the stylistic or aesthetic plagiarisms that Suskind thinks is essential to creativity, Perfume undermines the traditional assumption that the literary text is the exclusive personal property of its author. In doing so, Suskind suggests that the humanist notion of the autonomous self, idealized since the Enlightenment, has caused a fundamental misunderstanding, if not a perversion, of the creative process.
Perfume succeeds so well because, on the surface, the premise is so startlingly novel. An olfactory genius in 18th-century Paris who can make a fortune creating perfumes more complicated and subtle than any ever made, is a sociopathic monster. Or, as Suskind describes him, a “tick” who can roll up into a defensive ball or periodically drop himself into society. Grenouille is a compelling and disturbing character because Suskind has painted him in such realistic tones. Each effort to capture a new scent impels him farther, taking more chances and testing his limits, exploiting new techniques and his own criminal daring. This makes Grenouille terrifyingly believable – perhaps even relatable.
From his birth – when his mother abandoned him to death among discarded fish guts – and through his childhood, when he discovered how different he was to his apprenticeship – Suskind is able to evoke several different emotions from you, ranging from sympathy for the young orphan to curiosity to disgust and hatred. Grenouille’s lack of aroma can be seen as representative of his lack of morals in a world in which the amoral and the ethical were struggling to find a new common ground.
The book is good, very good. Unfortunately, I do not think it is great – perhaps because Suskind’s prose tends toward the overdone. Maybe it reads better in the original German, but Suskind’s maddening penchant for rephrasing and repeating the same notion and turning a sentence into a paragraph finally dulls the senses and sets you skimming along searching for the next important point.
However, the plot is unique, hands down; its execution is so skillfully done, not only in Grenouille’s characterization, but also because Suskind has done his homework and is smoothly at ease with 18th century French mores and the science of perfume. Suskind does a remarkable job in portraying Paris of the 18th century, relying more on olfactory descriptions than is common in novels, which supports the rather odd conceit behind the narrative. He describes Grenouille and his actions with a detached demeanor, thereby heightening the horrific nature of Grenouille’s actions by not commenting on that nature. But the squishy repetitive prose and unfocused paragraphs keep Perfume from joining the ranks of literary masterpieces.