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
…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
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.