Perfume : The Story of a Murderer

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Product details

  • Hardback | 186 pages
  • 144 x 234 x 20mm | 421.84g
  • Penguin Books Ltd
  • Hamish Hamilton Ltd
  • London, United Kingdom
  • Open market ed
  • 0241119197
  • 9780241119198

Review Text

From a West German playwright: an elaborate historical fable about smell, set in 18th-century France - obsessive, showy, heavily (if rather murkily) metaphorical, with a fair amount of black-comic dazzle but only a glimmer or two of genuine narrative magic. Suskind's monster - hero is Jean. Baptise Grenouille, born in stench-ridden Paris in 1738, an instant orphan (his fishwife-mother is beheaded for multiple infanticide), rejected by society, barely allowed to live. But, though ugly, deformed, and hateful, Grenouille has been born with a double-miracle when it comes to odor: he himself is odorless. . .and he has super-powers of smell for the odors around him! And soon, inspired by the glorious aroma of a luscious maiden (whom he kills), young Grenouille vows to become history's greatest perfumer, to "revolutionize the odoriferous world." He becomes the apprentice to a leading Parisian perfumer, quickly outdoing his master; he manically absorbs every smell-extracting technique, nearly dying of a broken heart when he fails to distill scent from glass, leather, or gravel. Then he spends seven years in glorious egomaniacal isolation, a godlike hermit in a mountain cave, free of human smells around him. But an olfactory identity-crisis - he's aware of, but can't quite smell, his own body odor - sends Grenouille back into society, now determined to concoct an artificial substitute for human scent. Eventually his obsession leads him to kill two-dozen lovely virgins, extracting a super-scent front their hair, clothes, etc. And though this ultimate perfume enables Grenouille to escape the guillotine (it makes him a demigod and drives the masses into orgiastic frenzies), he's nonetheless driven to suicide-by-cannibalism: "If he could not smell himself and thus never know who he was, to hell with it, with the world, with himself, with his perfume." In John Woods' stylish translation, Suskind's central premise has strong resonance at the start. At book length, however, the notion wears thin; the nature of Grenouille's paradox, with its thematic subtext (smell as human-ness, as self-knowledge, etc.), becomes both repetitious and inconsistent. And Suskind's storytelling, short on memorable supporting players, lacks the Candide-like brio needed to sustain involvement in such an arch and stagy (if frequently impressive) exercise. (Kirkus Reviews)show more

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230,747 ratings
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