A certain evanescent and unknowable scent

"...people could close their eyes to greatness, to horrors, to beauty, and their ears to melodies or deceiving words. But they could not escape scent. For scent was a brother of breath. Together with breath it entered human beings, who could not defend themselves against it, not if they wanted to live. And scent entered into their very core, went directly into their hearts, and decided for good and all between affection and contempt, disgust and lust, love and hate. He who ruled scent ruled the hearts of men." ~p. 155
There are two scents that I can remember rather sharply as long as I close my eyes and focus on them. The first one is the cigarette smell of my father's breath every time he kisses me as a child. It was probably the very reason I started smoking in the first place when I was only twelve years old because it was a scent that I associated with love and affection at that time. Even though he quit the habit when I was fourteen, I will always think of cigarette smoke as my father's signature scent, and breathing it in also comes with the fond recollection of my carefree innocence and the safety of a strong, paternal figure who will always protect me. That particular scent has etched on me so distinctly and completely that I instinctively have those warm feelings to this day whenever I'm at a social gathering with friends whose second-hand smoke is essentially a kind of nostalgia that intoxicates me. The second smell is my high school best friend's shampoo whose brand I never found out by name but it's something I can spot with my nose even from a distance. As soon as I encounter that shampoo scent, there's a lightness to my step when I approach it, knowing it's her, the love of my life then who fills up my breathing space with something extraordinary every day.

In 2009, an upperclassman in college recommended the film adaptation of this book back when I didn't even know about this German novel. The movie starring Ben Whishaw as the lead role was something quite unforgettable in concept even if the delivery of the story itself felt lacking. Nevertheless, it was truly a bizarre story, one that confounds and disturbs--a spooky examination of the powerful extent that our olfactory sense has on us, like how certain smells can trigger memories and emotions in an inexplicable manner. I didn't like the movie as much but the plot and character did stay with me until I found out a copy of this book three years ago for the Manila International Book Fair.

"There are scents that linger for decades. A cupboard rubbed with musk, a piece of leather drenched with cinnamon oil, a glob of ambergris, a cedar chest--they all possess virtually eternal olfactory life. While other things evaporate within a few hours if they are exposed to the air in a pure, unbound form. The perfumer would bind scents that are too volatile, by putting them in chains, so to speak, taming their urge for freedom--though his art consists of leaving enough slack in the chains for the odor seemingly to preserve its freedom even when it is tied so deftly that it cannot flee." p. 193

Patrick Süskind's 1985 novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer closely follows the dark tale of the orphan and aspiring perfumer Jean-Baptiste Grenouille who was born with an acute sense of smell. Puzzlingly enough, he has no smell of his own. This is a symbolic characteristic that I find poignant.

The book was set in mid-century France, specifically in the grimy and filthy streets of Paris whose awful and wondrous variety of scents has drawn someone of Grenouille's special ability in the first place. In part, Perfume reads as a straightforward biography of the protagonist mostly told in the perspectives of the different men and women who have encountered him. It was by the last hundred pages of the novel that the narrative is transformed into a serial-killer suspenseful tale which was well worth the wait, given the amount of time that the author has spent earlier in the book, crafting a rather slow-burning pace that led to Grenouille's growing awareness concerning his prowess and the ultimate goal he must reach. I thought Süskind's style was a great exercise of literary discipline where he not only have to vividly capture olfactory descriptions throughout the novel, but also possess a greater understanding of what a creature like Grenouille must live like, as well as how he responds to his environment and humanity in general. With his gift, he never quite developed inherent qualities like empathy since he is only able to know people in the most visceral yet hollow of ways by associating everything a human being is through smell alone.


"Beneath his mask, there was no face but only his total ordorless." ~p. 241

Grenouille's repulsion towards humans become more apparent once he fully embraced his narcissism and uniqueness, arguing that he must be above humankind because of his acute olfactory functions. He can create and concoct scents that can deceive people and he takes much pride in this feat. His feelings of superiority and alienation heavily stems from the fact that he never had any kind of meaningful connection or relationship with another person. He might as well be a new breed of human altogether and he knows this only too punishingly well. Suskind described Grenuoille as unremarkable in appearance, very inconspicuous and frail that he would hardly ever make an impression. In spite of Grenouille's bloated sense of worth, he remains very much human because he still possesses that natural inclination of ours to desire and wish for love. Grenouille does want to be accepted and loved even if it's in the most twisted way imaginable; and the grave road he paved to acquire just that is absolutely frightening. Deeply motivated to "rob a living being its aromatic soul" in substitute of his own, Grenouille mistakes this for happiness.

Grenouille begins to seek the ultimate olfactory concoction found in the odors of adolescent girls whom he began to hunt down in order to acquire their essence and store it in a perfume bottle. This is the most engaging part of the entire novel; his desire to create a perfume that makes him irresistible to humans. It is sad when you think about it. What Grenouille simply wants to accomplish is to reaffirm his existence through defining his relevance in the only manner he is capable of. Under the threat of population and emphasis on the significant role of the majority versus the individual, Grenouille feels invisible, taking comfort in the lie that this does not bother him when it in fact imprisons him in a state of mind where no one can reach him. 

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille [is] a compelling character designed to exploit a deeply embedded cultural fascination with the criminal genius...Grenouille's appeal derives from the similarity of this homicidal predator of eigtheenth-century France with present-day serial killers, real and fictional, who continue to attract both artistic and public interest. As a serial killer, Grenouille conforms to a profile established by current clinical research linking the narcissistic borderline personality with homicidal psychopaths. Severe emotional traumas in early life have blocked the healthy internalizations needed to build a stable core self. Lacking coherent self-structure as the basis for internalizing authority, he has no superego. Guilt is not an aspect of his consciousness; he murders merely to acquire the materials necessary for his art."
~The Poetics of Melancholia and Mourning
 

With such a painstakingly layered and symbolic themes that populate this book, there have been a handful of analyses and interpretations about Perfume out there which are also available online. The most striking article I've read about it (as quoted above) asserts that 'the novel is a cautionary fable revealing how the Enlightenment ideal of individual autonomy is all-too-easily subverted by instrumental reason to produce the ego pathology that increasingly infects modern society.' Granted, this analysis mostly focuses on the subversions and criticism on Romanticism, as well as issues on the subject of melancholia and mourning in a literary perspective, but it's a rather interesting read to so I advise you check it out if you ever decide to read this book.

"He, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, born with no odor of his own on the most stinking spot in this world amid garbage, dung and putrefaction, raised without love, with no warmth of a human soul, surviving solely on impudence and the power of loathing--he had managed to make the world love him. And in that moment he experienced the greatest triumph of his life. And he was terrified. He was terrified because he could not enjoy one second of it." ~pp. 239-240

Anyone loves a great serial-killer story and this may be no Darkly Dreaming Dexter because it's not a hard-boiled thriller dealing with moral ambiguities as slick and sexy as the aforementioned series does, but Perfume nonetheless excels in the genre in its own sublime way. With a character like Jean-Baptiste Grenouille who is more or less a blunt-force trauma-to-the-head, this book delivers a dark fable that's more often than not rather crude and petrifying in scope, yet its prose also becomes delicate to the touch, even when it's uncomfortably bizarre to see the events unfold before you. The gruelling climax and ending will simply astound and leave you cold for hours. This is a guaranteed contemporary classic that will deftly play with your imagination. 

"But Grenouille perceives that this is not enough because he cannot love himself. He knows that, even though he can appear as the most wonderful of individuals to everyone in the world with this scent, he cannot smell himself and, therefore, he cannot know who he truly is. With this lack of self-knowledge, the world and himself have no meaning. ~[x]
 
 
RECOMMENDED: 8/10

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