Saturday, December 22, 2007

Perfume – Patrick Süskind (1985)

In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of mouldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlours stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber-pots. The stench of sulphur rose from the chimneys; the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouse came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease. The rivers stank, the marketplaces stank, the churches stank, it stank beneath the bridges and in the palaces. The peasant stank as did the priest the apprentice as did his master’s wife, the whole of the aristocracy stank, even the King himself stank, stank like a rank lion and the Queen like an old goat, summer and winter. For in the eighteenth century there was nothing to hinder the bacteria busy at decomposition, and so there was no human activity, either constructive or destructive, no manifestation of germinating or decaying life, that was not accompanied by stench.

And thus begins one of the most sensuously delightful novels I have read. Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, first published as Das Parfum in 1985, and translated into English by John E.Woods in 1986 takes the reader on the most mesmerising journey into the world of perfume. The novel’s protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, born on the streets of 18th century Paris as we could never imagine it, curiously enough possesses no human odour which leads him to being rejected by everyone who comes in contact with him. But if he himself as no personal scent, he is blessed with the sharpest olfactory sense and can smell distinguish between the smallest and slightest of odours.

…when the wind brought him something, a tiny hardly noticeable something, a crumb, an atom of scent than the scent itself; no even less than that: it was more the premonition of a scent that the scent itself – and at the same time it was definitely a premonition of something that he had never smelled before. He backed up against the wall, closed his eyes and flared his nostrils. The scent was so exceptionally delicate and fine that he could not hold onto to it; it continually eluded his perception, was masked by the powder-smoke of the petards, blocked by the exudations of the crowd, fragmented and crushed by the thousands of other city odours. But then, suddenly it was there again, a mere shred, the whiff of a magnificent premonition for only a second…and it vanished at once. Grenouille suffered agonies. For the first time, it was not just that his greedy nature was offended, but his very heart ached. He had the prescience of something extraordinary – this scent was the key for ordering all odours, one could understand nothing about odours if one did not understand this one scent, and his whole life would be bungled, if he, Grenouille, did not succeed in possessing it. He had to have it, not simply in order to possess it, but for his heart to be in peace.

The odour came rolling down the rue de Seine like a ribbon, unmistakably clear, and yet as before very delicate and very fine. Grenouille felt his heart pounding, and he knew that it was not the exertion of running that had set it pounding, but rather his excited helplessness in the presence of this scent. He tried to recall something comparable, but had to discard all comparisons. This scent had a freshness, but not the freshness of limes or pomegranates, nor the freshness of myrrh or cinnamon bark or curly mint or birch of camphor or pine needles, nor that of a May rain or a frosty wind or of well water…and at the same time it had warmth, but not as bergamot, cypress or musk has, or jasmine or narcissi, not as rosewood has or iris…This scent was a blend of both, of evanescence and substance, not a blend, but a unity, although slight and frail as well, and yet solid and sustaining, like a piece of thin, shimmering silk…and yet again not like silk, but like pastry soaked in honey-sweet milk – and try as he would, he couldn’t fit those two together: milk and silk! This scent was inconceivable, indescribable, could not be categorised in any way – it really ought not to exist at all. And yet there it was plain and splendid as day. Grenouille followed it, his fearful heart pounding, for he suspected that it was not he followed the scent, but the scent that had captured him and was drawing him irresistibly to it.

Grenouille’s quest for the “perfect” scent takes him on a mesmerising journey of discoveries, till he realises that the scent that can drive anyone wild with desire and that makes men worship the ground the wearer walks on is that of a virgin girl and thus begins a horrifying quest to possess that scent. He cold-bloodedly murders several young women in order to possess their scent, all the while working his way in the perfume industry, learning how to extract and preserve perfumes from the best in the industry in Paris and later Grasse, the capital of perfumes in 18th century France. The novel takes on a horrifying twist when he finally succeeds in concocting the perfume for himself.

From the very first page I was entrapped in the overwhelming descriptions that took me on my own journey of olfactory discoveries, so powerful was the imagery, as is evident from the brief excerpts I have pasted here. The ease with which Süskind has woven in the cold menace into a sublimely beautiful prose is remarkable. The novel makes you alternate between the desire to lose oneself in the world of perfumes and a creepy horror at the drama unfolding before your eyes. Perfume, is unlike any other novel I’ve read, and definitely very high on my list of recommendations.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Girl from the Chartreuse – Pierre Péju (2005)

Translated by Ina Rilke from the French original La Petite Chartreuse (2002), The Girl from the Chartreuse is a heart-breaking story about Vollard, a book-seller who accidentally runs over a 10-year old girl with his van. The novel revolves around the three protagonists of Vollard, the little girl Éva and her mother Thérèse. Struck by the accident, Vollard reads fairytales to Éva, who sinks into coma after the accident, in the absence of her mother a rather aimless wanderer who abandons her child in her search for her own identity.

A profoundly moving novel that deals with the themes of life, childhood, loneliness and above all the question of how to accept oneself and understand differences, what struck me the most about the novel was not the story, as much as the sheer poetry of the oeuvre. Pure brilliance shines through every page, as Péju evokes tears with his poetic prose and makes your heart ache at Éva’s situation and Vollard’s loneliness and his pain. Poignant and beautiful, this is a book worth reading.

As the tradition goes, I leave you with an excerpt that has stayed with me even a year after I first read the book. It won’t take a genius to understand why…

"The Verb To Be" was the name of an old bookshop. A murky place, due not to a lack of lighting but to all the nooks and crannies. A deep space with dark,worn floorboards and secluded niches. Books everywhere, spread on tables and upright in rows, thousands of silent observers on wooden shelves.
An ongoing battle between dust and the printed word at "The Verb To Be," cardboard boxes overflowing with books, piles of volumes threatening to topple. Anarchy reigning supreme. Grandiose anarchy. A profusion of genres and titles. A joyous alchemy. It was here that people could drop by any day to procure their reading matter,highbrow or popular, arcane or classis, in exchange for a modest sum.

I rest my case…