"It was one of the hottest days of the year. The heat lay leaden upon the graveyard, squeezing its putrefying vapor, a blend of rotting melon and the fetid odor of burnt animal horn, out into the nearby alleys. When the labor pains began, Grenouille's mother was standing at a fish stall in the rue aux Fers, scaling whiting that she had just gutted. The fish, ostensibly taken that very morning from the Seine, already stank so vilely that the smell masked the odor of corpses."
Born in filth
This is how one of the most unusual literary heroes was born: in a stinking fish stall. The smell of the decay of past centuries still exudes at a cemetery that has been converted into a market. From the beginning, death is closer to Jean-Baptiste Grenouille than life. His mother cuts off the umbilical cord with a dirty knife and lets her baby lie between fish skins. The brat should have died.
But she did not anticipate the boy's absolute will to survive. With his little fingers, Grenouille claws his way into existence. After his mother is executed as a child murderer, he himself is deported as an orphan into the Paris of the 18th century, a greasy juggernaut where waste and feces clog the streets.
In order not to have to endure the bestial odors, those who can afford it hold a handkerchief with fine perfume to their noses. The others must simply come to terms with this stinking effluvia of life.
Ironically, Patrick Süskind throws Jean-Baptiste Grenouille into this world of smells. The Parisian orphan boy is punished with an ugly body devoid of its own fragrance — yet he is also blessed with a genius nose. Grenouille can perceive odors from the greatest distance and dissect them into their individual parts. He's an outsider with a unique talent — and a murderous idea.
Scent of all scents
Grenouille wants to create the greatest of all fragrances, an essence that finally makes this inconspicuous outsider smell — and therefore visible. He wants to compose the perfect perfume to finally become part of the world. And for that he begins to kill the young, fragrant women from whose smell the ultimate perfume is to emerge. His first victim is a red-haired "mirabelle" girl.
"She was so frozen with terror at the sight of him that he had plenty of time to put his hands to her throat. She did not attempt to cry out, did not budge, did not make the least motion to defend herself. He, in turn, did not look at her … keeping his eyes closed tight as he strangled her, for he had only one concern — not to lose the least trace of her scent."
The Süskind mystery
Dozens of other women will fall prey to Grenouille's obsession and murderous meticulousness until he is finally convicted.
The book, which became the greatest literary success in Germany since World War II, ends with an almost orgiastic scene as hundreds turn up to witness the protagonist's execution.
Grenouille, however, uses his unique perfume to put the mob into a fragrance-driven frenzy. In time, the crowd storm the scaffold and give him his freedom.
"He held (...) a power stronger than the power of money or the power of terror or the power of death: the invincible power to command the love of mankind. There was only one thing that power could not do: it could not make him able to smell himself and thus never know who he was, to hell with it, with the world, with himself, with his perfume," wrote Süskind.
While it was a brilliant idea to place the most fleeting of all sensory impressions in the center of a story, not all publishers initially saw it that way.
Süskind faced one rejection after another until Zurich-based Diogenes Verlag published the book in 1985. Perfume has since become an international bestseller that has sold millions of copies and has been translated into dozens of languages — including Latin.
And yet the book's celebrated author consistently eludes the media hype. He gives no interviews, no insight into his work or his private life. Süskind is as fleeting as the fragrance his hero Grenouille seeks to preserve. Perhaps the success of the book also feeds a bit on the mysterious aura of its creator.
Bestseller to the big screen
The film industry had a good nose for a bestseller that could be adapted into a hit film. But for a long time the book was considered unfilmable. A taciturn main character, smell as the leitmotif — how do you turn the story into an exciting onscreen drama? In 2006, Tom Tykwer took the risk with a film adaptation.
Unfortunately, some film critics and hard-nosed literarati found the film too clumsy, too gimmicky. But disappointment was inevitable when trying to bring such a beloved novel to the big screen.
What makes Perfume such an extraordinary book? Was it the intriguing combination of historical and crime writing? Or the simple language? Was it that Süskind put an anti-hero in the center of his action, a compulsive character that does not belong anywhere and has a very unique view of the world?
Despite his autistic and beastly nature, the reader finds sympathy for Grenouille because they can understand his turmoil. It is not the cold-blooded lust for killing that drives him but the morbid belief that the ultimate scent will bring himself into existence. Those who have met this master of fragrances, a pathological genius created from the pen of Patrick Süskind, will not forget him easily.
Patrick Süskind: Perfume, Penguin Modern Classics, (German title: Das Parfum, 1985). English translation: John E. Woods.
Patrick Süskind was born in Ambach, in southern Germany, in 1949. He continues to live today, but also in Munich and France. He does not give interviews, and refuses to be involved in the literary business. Perfume is his only novel. He also achieved global popularity with his one-act, one-character play The Double Bass (Der Kontrabass) from 1981), that continues to be performed on German and international stages.