Friday, June 7, 2013

Remembrance of things best forgotten

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Das Parfum) by Patrick Süskind (Vintage International, 1986) 255 pages 

Initially intrigued, I had high expectations for this tale of  a mid 18thc. Parisian murderer with a supremely sophisticated olfactory sense. However, this expectation quickly deteriorated. Süskind's style is elegant but very overwrought - he often says in three pages that which may be said in one or two paragraphs. It is a style that is reminiscent of the overrefined writing of Proust - perhaps a remembrance of things best forgotten. 

Grenouille begins life auspiciously and violently: his mother, a fishmonger, squats at her market stall and gives birth to the boy as she had done with many other babies whom she promptly miscarried or were stillborn. Not so with Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, who squalls violently and is discovered. His mother is imprisoned and has her head separated from her body for the death of her prior children.

 Jean-Baptiste is brought to a wet nurse and she immediately comes to loathe him because he is greedy in his nursing. She then foists him on a priest (who feels the same loathing) and who then promptly foists him off into an orphanage that sells him off to be apprenticed in a tannery - with the fervent hope that he will soon die under its brutal work conditions. There is an unacknowledged ugliness underlying all this that is very disturbing. I find it difficult to believe that children are born evil and are so repugnant that they immediately alienate their caregivers even in this fictional context. The wet nurse's primary complaint is that the baby has no scent ... at all. 

At page 100, our hero Jean-Baptiste Grenouille has done precisely, and only, this: survived being orphaned and apprenticed twice (the second time to the perfume maker Baldini). Oh yes, and he has murdered a teenage girl merely, it appears, to get a sense of what that would smell like. That scent haunts him ... 

At page 150 or thereabouts he leaves Baldini (after helping him make a small fortune) to make his way to Grasse in pursuit of certain scent. He commits exactly one murder prior to this (and what a loving memory that is for him). He decides that cannot bear human companionship (yes, but why?), somehow loses his way, and, ends up living in a cave for seven years in a state of semi-delirium.

One day at the end of this long, arduous ordeal Grenouille makes it to Montpellier telling a fictitious tale about being kidnapped, kept in a cave, fed by an unknown captor and then released after seven years without having any human contact. In Montpellier he is commandeered by the pseudo-scientist Marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse who has his own agenda, cleans up Grenouille and presents him to society as a specimen that he has helped to rehabilitate into a human being with his scientific theories. 

As luck would have it de La Taillade-Espinasse also dabbles a bit in fluids and perfumes and Grenouille  creates a unique scent that disguises the fact that he does not have one of his own. He leaves Montpellier on a new mission ... now the serial killing begins in earnest but I won't spoil the plot. 

There are so many odd little bits pertinent to the plot that Süskind does not bother to even try and explain ... why does Grenouille have this exceptional sense of smell that has such an intense erotic element to it? Why does he not give off his own scent? Why is he not able to ascertain his own lack of bodily scent until he has lived in the cave for seven years? What gives him pleasure in the killing? How is that everyone he has contact with after he leaves them immediately dies, his mother, his first master apprentice, the perfumer? What does that signify about Grenouille ... that he is pure evil? There is no psychological understanding of this character. 

At first, I was thinking that I hate to whine but when I am told that this will be a tale about a serial murderer, I wanna see a few murders ... is that so wrong? I don't want to wait until page 194 to witness the second such occurrence and page 195 to witness the subsequent ones. Then (thankfully?), I became repulsed with certain aspects of the book: the murderer rhapsodizing over the scent of his first teenage victim, the killing of a puppy in one of his dreadful experiments, the youth of the girls killed, and finally, a scenario where a father lusts after his teenage daughter (she too becomes Grenouille's victim). It left me feeling dispirited and uncomfortable.

Yes, the language is pretty, the writer has talent but the character of Grenouille is so jaded and unpleasant and his end so grisly that I could rejoice in none of it.

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