Wednesday, October 15, 2008

'Perfume: The Story of a Murderer'

by Patrick Süskind
Translated from the German by John E. Woods
Fiction/Literary, 1985 (Germany), 1986 (English translation)
Penguin UK, trade pb, 260 p.
Winner of the World Fantasy Award, 1987
Survivor, genius, perfumer, killer: this is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. He is abandoned on the filthy streets as a child, but grows up to discover he has an extraordinary gift: a sense of smell more powerful than any other human’s. Soon, he is creating the most sublime fragrances in Paris. Yet there is one odour he cannot capture. It is exquisite, magical: the scent of a young virgin. And to get it he must kill. And kill. And kill...
I can’t quite put my finger on it but something kept me from really loving this story. I liked it, don’t get me wrong, but I think I expected something more. Too high expectations perhaps? The translation? Actually I loved the beginning, when the story took place in Paris, but once Grenouille left Paris, I lost a bit of momentum in reading and never really got it back.
Grenouille was an interesting character though. He’s despicable and selfish and egotistical but there were the odd moments I almost felt sympathy toward him. I’m not sure I ever really got to know him or any of the other characters although maybe that's the point since for him everything and everyone is defined purely by scent of the lack thereof.
Every human being smelled differently, no one knew that better than Grenouille, who recognized thousands upon thousands of individual odours and could sniff out the difference of each human being from birth on. And yet – there was a basic perfumatory theme to the odour of humanity, a rather simple one, incidentally: a sweaty-oily, sour-cheesy, quite richly repulsive basic theme that clung to all humans equally and above which each individual’s aura hovered only as a small cloud of more refined particularity. (p. 154)
Some of the descriptions about perfumery were quite fascinating. I’d never given much thought to the process of extracting the basic scents before so that part of the story was interesting. Overall, it’s a great concept that just didn’t completely grab me. I’m looking forward to finally watching the movie though and seeing how it compares to the book.

Read an extract here.

My Rating: 3.5/5
(#42 for 2008, Orbis Terrarum Challenge, R.I.P. III Challenge, Herding Cats Challenge, 1% Well-Read Challenge, Book Awards II Challenge)

Reminder: If you have read and reviewed this title, let me know and I'll link to it here.


  1. I always wondered whether this was worth reading or not. I think I would still read it because I like detailed description very much. I enjoyed your review. Thank you.

  2. I have to agree with you...especially about the scents, that fascinated me!

  3. High expectations really can get in the way of the reading experience, even if the book is an enjoyable one. I had that problem just recently with Jamaica Inn. I am one of the few people who still haven't read this book. Someday I will, though. It really does sound interesting.

  4. Hi!
    I have read this in the original German and English, and I hate to say it but I fell it lost a lot in translation. The German is much, much, much better than the English.

    The film is better than the English but no way as good as the German hopefully you'll enjoy that a bit more!


  5. Hi nat :}
    I read PARFUME in french...always the same question ? does a novel lose it's impact in translation?
    I liked this book, also Grenouille discusted me...:P
    The way I read it, the begining and the end compliment one annother. (I know I repeat myself)
    See the movie, I found it very similar to the book. Let me know how you like the movie. Like I previously mentioned, I have PIGEON by Suskind but put it down, this author has a gift for a certain nausea inducing tale...:}}will read it when things are settled in my life.

  6. I agree that high expectations can definitely hurt a book.

    You know, I always consider this to be one of my favorites but I think about it and I read this book at least 10 years ago! So, I'm curious if I'd still get as much out of now as I did at the time. Anyway, I did find Grenouille to be fascinating and horrible at the same time.

  7. I'm pretty sure I would be totally fascinated by the details of perfumery? Perfuming? You know what I mean. lol

    Sorry the book wasn't a total winner, but at least it wasn't a total loooser.

  8. I've been wondering whether I should read this one. It sounds interesting, and the little excerpt you posted was very interesting (I could almost smell/taste it as I read), but I have a tendency to get easily grossed out (also the reason I'm not sure whether I should read Out). Since you've read both of these, I was wondering, are they very graphic, or will I be able to read them without being afraid I'll lose my lunch?

  9. Sandra - It wasn't a bad read at all, I suppose I just felt like it wasn't quite what I expected.

    Janet - Learning about the different processes to derive scent really was quite fascinating. Made me want to go to that part of France during lavender season.

    Nymeth - Those darn expectations! I've only ever read Rebecca by Du Maurier, but I'll have to try another at some point.

    Brit - Hi! I always wonder about translations and while reading it I was wondering how it fared. In a way, I'm glad to hear that something was lost in translation, like it's not entirely my fault for not liking it as much as I'd hoped. I am looking forward to seeing the film. Sometime soon, hopefully.

    Sylvie - The French translation might very well have been better than the English, considering Brit's comment above. I'll definitely let you know what I think of the movie once I get around to watching it.

    Iliana - Did you read it in English or German? It's true that we have different reactions to books at different times. It would be interesting to see how you feel about it now, if you do read it again some time.

    Andi - LOL. You made me wonder if I'd gotten the word right so I just checked.
    Perfumery, the art of making perfumes.

    Ashley - Before I read this one, I had the impression it was quite gruesome, but it actually wasn't really. The focus really is on scent, so the murders are described but not graphically, at least that's what I thought.
    Out on the other hand was much more graphic and violent. Let's just say, there was blood and body parts! If you're easily grossed out, Out may not be a good choice.

  10. Someone told me that this was Johnny Depp's favorite book. I don't know if that's true, but it's always nice to know celebrities like to read too. :-) Great review, Nat!

  11. Wendy - LOL. I can kind of see that, he does seem to go in for quirky characters. :)


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