Originally published 1985
Original language German
Publication date 1985
|Cover artist Antoine Watteau detail from
"Nymphe et satyre", 1715-16|
Publisher Diogenes (Germany) Alfred A. Knopf (US) Hamish Hamilton (UK)
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 263 p. (UK hardback edition)
Adaptations Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)
Characters Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, Madame Gaillard
Genres Horror fiction, Mystery, Magical Realism, Absurdism
Similar Patrick Süskind books, Fiction books
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a 1985 literary historical cross-genre novel (originally published in German as Das Parfum) by German writer Patrick Süskind. The novel explores the sense of smell and its relationship with the emotional meaning that scents may carry. It is a story of identity, communication and the morality of the human spirit.
The story centers on Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an unloved 18th-century French orphan who is born with an exceptional sense of smell, being able to distinguish a vast range of scents in the world around him. Grenouille becomes a perfumer but is drawn to murder when he encounters a young girl with an unsurpassed wondrous scent.
With translations into 48 languages and over 20 million copies sold to date worldwide, 'Perfume' is one of the largest book sales among 20th Century German novels. The title remained in bestseller lists for about 9 years, and received almost unanimously positive national and international critical acclaim. The novel was translated into English by John E. Woods and won the PEN Translation Prize in 1987.
Some editions of Perfume, including the first, have as their cover image Antoine Watteau's painting Jupiter and Antiope, which depicts a sleeping woman.
The novel is widely seen as an allegory for Hitler and his dramatic rise to power.
Grenouille (French for "frog") is born in Paris, France in 1738; his mother is almost immediately tried for previous infanticide leaving him an orphan. He is fostered but is a difficult solitary child and eventually apprenticed to a tanner. Unknown to the world around him, he has a remarkable sense of smell, and an extraordinary ability to discern odors; as a result he can perform apparently magical feats such as identifying bad vegetables by the worms they contain, or visitors as they approach the house, and can navigate in total darkness by the smell of objects around him.
On a day when he had memorized nearly all the smells of the city, he is surprised by a smell quite unlike the dirty. He then traces it with his nose, and finds that the source of this scent is a young virgin girl just passing puberty. She is not much younger than Grenouille. Entranced by her scent and under the belief that he alone must possess it, he kills her and stays with her body until the scent has left it. In his quest to learn more about the art of perfume-making, he becomes apprenticed to a once great perfumer, Baldini, and proves himself a wunderkind although this is not revealed to anyone except Baldini. Baldini eventually reveals to him that there are techniques other than distillation that can be used to preserve a wider range of odours, which can be found in the heartland of the perfumer's craft, in the region of Grasse, in the French Riviera.
On his way to Grasse, Grenouille travels the countryside and discovers that he is disgusted with the scent of humanity. Avoiding habitations, he comes instead to live in a mountain cave for many years. However his peace is broken when he realizes after some years that he himself has no scent. Travelling to Montpellier with a fabricated story about being kidnapped and kept in a cave to account for his appearance, he creates a body odour for himself from everyday materials, and finds that his new "disguise" tricks people into thinking that it is the scent of a human; he is now accepted by society instead of given a wide berth. Humanity being fooled by a simple scent, his hate turns into contempt. He realizes that it is within his ability to develop scents described as "superhuman" and "angelic", that will affect in an unprecedented way, how other people perceive and feel him.
Reaching Grasse, he trains in the arts of scent extraction and preservation and one day encounters a second scent that is even more inspiring to him than his original victim. It is the scent of a young girl named Laure Richis. He decides this time that he will seek to preserve the scent physically and not just in his memory, and begins a campaign of serial killing of teenage girls to practice keeping and preserving their scent - the victims are not otherwise molested beyond the removal of their hair for scent preservation. Laure's father realizes his daughter must be the goal of the murderer's campaign and, telling nobody, takes her to a place of safety, but Grenouille follows them by following her scent, and when they stop for the night, he finally kills her and successfully preserves her scent.
He is caught red-handed shortly afterwards and sentenced to death. However, on the way to his execution he wears a new scent he has created, that causes awe and adoration in others, and although the evidence of his guilt is absolute, the crowd are so drawn to him, and a belief in the innocence he now exudes, that he is freed; even Laure's father asks if he would consider being adopted as his son. Because of this scent, the entire town participates in a mass orgy of which no one speaks afterwards. Grenouille however now realizes how much he hates people, and that even this degree of control does not make him happy. Returning to Paris, he is torn to pieces by a crowd who are so drawn to him due to his scent, that they became compelled to obtain and consume pieces of him. It is notable that this is a suicide. He walks in front of them and, knowing its power, pours the whole bottle of perfume on himself. The story ends with the reflection of those in the crowd, who are left embarrassed by their own action, but are also left "uncommonly proud. For the first time they had done something out of Love."
Characters (in order of appearance)
In France, before meeting Baldini:
"Grenouille let it go at that. He refrained from overpowering some whole, live person ... that sort of thing would have ... resulted in no new knowledge. He knew he was master of the techniques needed to rob a human of his or her scent, and knew it was unnecessary to prove this fact anew. Indeed, human odour was of no importance to him whatsoever. He could imitate human odour quite well enough with surrogates. What he coveted was the odour of certain human beings: that is, those rare humans who inspire love. Those were his victims."
In Pierrefort, after emerging from his isolation in the mountains:
In Grasse, France:
The real story of the serial killer Manuel Blanco Romasanta, also known as the wolfman, who killed several women and children and extracted their body fat to make soap and sold their clothes, bears resemblance to the character.