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.


Anonymous said...

I am glad you came back on literarymosaic G. Thanks to your reviews, I get to expand my rather limited horizons. Now I am eager to read a book, that I probably might not have glanced at twice on the bookshelf. :)

32 said...

I have seen the film (as you know), but this makes me go for a book! I must read it. Thanks!

Read your post "Tagged"
I am rather happy for myself. I really loved Little Women. Those magical days of childhood[I know I'm not 60yr old to say that but still.... :)]
Diary of Anne Frank was the first book to bring Holocaust,cruelity,futility of war to me. It really struck the chords of my heart.

I am very glad about the fact that I had teacher like you!
I am so.... going to miss our morning class!! :)


Plain Jane said...

Anon - Limited Horizons? I beg to differ my dear...and will you really read it? ;-)

Aneesh/32 - Pourquoi 32? Cela me rend contente de te voir ici...keep dropping by and stay in touch! And if you want, I can lend you the book to read (on the condition that it be returned intact to me!)

Abhijeet said...

this is coincidence! just yesterday a friend of mine mentioned that he was making a film on "scent"...

do you know where one could buy the book ? maybe it could help him with the script....


Plain Jane said...

Abhijeet- Well I'll recommend the film as well as the book if your friend really wants to make a film on that same subject. I'd up the book from Manney's - so you could ask there or at Landmark since they are likely to procure it for you. The film, it seems can be downloaded.

32 said...

I assure you that I will guard the book and return "intact" to you. but... I don't think I can manage to read it now. Right now I have oile to read! Currently busy with Ruskin Bond stories! I love them!
I will be in touch through this medium.
About 32! Funny Story! (As Chandler would say!!) That's my nickname. That's what friends call me! For now this is all I can say!
I'm also posting on my blog about some things that really strike me.
Good to see your comment there.
Worst thing, to add in that post about "bench" is Ajinkya, my friend, commited a sucide on 12th oct. So....I really felt lonely. :(