Interestingly enough, I read this novel in Indonesian for my Indonesian literature class in high school. But through the years, this book and its content has really stuck with me. Perhaps part of why it resonates in my head is because I have never read any other historical fantasy books before. It is an interesting tale of Grenouille, a French orphan, his lack of body odour and his obsession with the sense of smell.
Grenouille’s life is quite tragic; his mother is executed shortly after giving birth to him, leaving him an orphan. Then, he is put in foster care, only to find the caretakers and other children do not like him. His extraordinary sense of smell, however, allows him to avoid trouble by, for example, sensing worms in vegetables and not wanting to eat them. So despite all the tragic events in his life, Grenouille survives the slums of Paris.
One day he smells something intriguing and decides to follow it. Upon finding it is a young woman, Grenouille decides he must own her scent, therefore he kills her and stays with the corpse until the scent is there no more. Grenouille eventually learns perfume making from one of the experts in Paris, Baldini. He spends his life learning this art as he is driven by such passion to own all scents he finds he cannot live without. He makes a perfume that gives him his own smell, so he finally has one and feels ‘human.’
As Grenouille learns more of this craft and becomes even more obsessed, he starts serial killing young teenage girls to preserve their scents. He is caught for his crime, but before his execution, he wears a perfume of his own creation that made the crowd fall in love with him, thus believing he is innocent. Grenouille learns he can control people through his perfumes and commits suicide by pouring the whole bottle on his own body while in the middle of the city. The story ends as the crowd of people around him becomes intoxicated with the scent and consume pieces of him.
‘Perfume: The Story of A Murderer’ contains sensitive and graphic content. Murder, unhealthy obsessions, and even cannibalism, at one point. This is clearly not a book for children. Certainly, Süskind’s detailed explanations could not make it any less than PG-13. But at its core, ‘Perfume’ is a tale of human nature: how we long to ‘fit in’ to society.
Grenouille’s obsession with the sense of smell can definitely be rooted to his extraordinary abilities. However, it is also mainly caused by his lack of personal odour. Here we learn that, as humans, you really want something you cannot have. His obsession drives him to insanity, mass killings and coming up to the point of preserving their scents by processing the flesh.
It’s gory. It’s bold. That’s why it stays with you. Yet at the same time, readers can relate to Grenouille’s struggle. He has never fit in to society, so he tries everything in his power so he can feel that sense of belonging for once. The protagonist’s life begins and ends tragically. He devotes his entire life to perfume making. But the story asks: at the and of the day, isn’t anything that we do, we do to make ourselves feel worthy of love?
Words by: Miranda Pranoto
Header image credited to: Henar Villodres on behance.net