But since he knew the smell of humans, knew it a thousandfold, men, women, children, he could not conceive of how such an exquisite scent could be emitted by a human being. Normally human odour was nothing special, or it was ghastly. Children smelled insipid, men urinous, all sour sweat and cheese, women smelled of rancid fat and rotting fish. Totally uninteresting, repulsive – that was how humans smelled.

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the villain of this novel, is a monster, a demonic presence. A homicidal maniac. He is also an artist, a creator of fabulous combinations of scents, whose talent lies in his ability to identify a multitude of individual odours using his sense of smell alone. His skills are so extraordinary that the parfumiers he is apprenticed to cannot understand why he does not exploit his abilities for financial gain – just as they are exploiting him themselves. Little do they realize he is intent on a far more ambitious project. The creation of a scent that defines what it is to be human.

For Grenouille himself was born without a personal odour of his own. Orphaned from the moment of his birth by his mother’s criminal neglect, he is passed between a series of wet nurses and monks until arriving at a boarding house for children. No person can stand to be near him for long, his lack of a smell forming an intolerable absence that leaves those in his vicinity uncomfortable and disturbed. Grenouille assumes this is due to contempt, for his body bears the tell-tale scars of disease and infection.

Paris is the city of his birth, a metropolis of rankness and rot, the smells and odours possessing to the ugly foundling character and presence due to his preternatural olfactory talents. He soaks up the scents and aromas of the city, cataloguing them in his brain and feeding his imagination with the material for possible future creations. He becomes fascinated with the idea of perfume and its ability to mask what is essentially human. Eventually he wrangles his way into the service of Giuseppe Baldini, a parfumier whose business is failing. Grenouille earns his new master great fortune, all the while learning more about the business of perfume and privately experimenting with his own otherworldly concoctions. He is uninterested in earning the partronage of an aristocrat, or starting his own successful business. Grenouille is on a quest to distill the scent of innocence itself and is willing to murder to achieve his aims.

Suskind’s novel appears to be attempting to be a Candide for the twentieth century, Voltaire’s comic satire on Enlightenment philosophy and its abstractions. Sadly I feel he missed the mark, with the tone of the book resembling Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. This is a modern novel that apes the conventions of the period it describes, but offers up anachronistic parody. At one point Baldini and his assistant have an exchange that is rendered on the page in the form of a script. Most exposition is given to us from the point of view of one of the characters, with the commonplace omniscient narrator absent, save only for references to the present day. There is a smug cynicism to the proceedings that I found off-putting.

Grenouille’s demonic aspect is a supernatural element that confounds the reason of those he meets. Baldini is used to the business of perfume being conducted through formulae and his scarred apprentice’s instinctive mixing of bases and scents is an affront to his understanding. A misguided lord experiments on Grenouille to prove his theories of fluidum vitale, which resembles Swift’s philosophers attempting to extract sunlight from cucumbers in Gulliver’s Travels. Antoine Richis, the father of one of Grenouille’s intended victims, uses the investigative method to evade the murderer, failing to realize the extent of his rival’s powers. Furthermore anyone who encounters him is subject to a mysterious curse, that results in their death, or great misfortune after he leaves. Suskind relates these demises with barely suppressed blackly comic glee.

The conceit of the novel is to introduce a supernatural agent who can manipulate the baser aspects of human nature. Reason collapses and religion is exposed as fraud before Grenouille’s talent with vials of scent. Overall though I found the tone unnecessarily parodic and the humour cruelly callous. To be honest I far prefer Lemony Snicket’s tragic fables.

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