Tuesday 5 April 2011

REVIEW: Perfume, by Patrick Süskind (4*)

(Penguin, 2006)

This book had what I call the 'Madame Bovary effect' on me. That is, while I appreciated the plot, the prose and the social history, I wasn't that bothered about the characters and got to the end of the novel thinking, 'Actually, I didn't really like it that much...' I found myself comparing it to Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, with its slightly blunt, spare translation, its intense sensory descriptions and its surreal exaggeration of reality - except that I was blown away by Like Water for Chocolate and wasn't by Perfume.

That said, I can't deny that this is a very accomplished novel. It tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a young man with an incredible nose who can tease apart the threads of scent in even the most hectic of city streets, differentiate between tiny gradients of fragrance, and discern odours that other people can't sense at all. The most elusive and desirable fragrance he encounters is the scent of a young virgin, and his obsessive pursuit of this ideal, his single-minded determination to create the ultimate perfume distilled from unblemished young women at the height of their perfection, leads him on an sinister quest to find the means to that exquisite end. He’s a hideous character, twisted and frightening in his genuine belief in his own crusade, but at the same time you can’t help admiring his genius and feeling some empathy for him despite his own complete lack of it.

The overwhelming level of olfactory description is definitely the main thing that stays with you as you close the book. Every scent, from flowers to humans to mountain air, is described in a flamboyant and exuberant swell of language. Unlike similar descriptions of taste, for example, or sound, I found it harder to ‘experience’ them as I read, and found that those passages veered from being sublime to, well... a bit much. In fact, that pretty much sums up my feelings about the book as a whole. Sometimes the description was divine, sometimes it was too much. Sometimes the process of perfume distillation and creation was fascinating, sometimes it was too much. Sometimes the more far-fetched or surreal aspects of the plot were deliciously compelling, sometimes they were... yep, you guessed it, too much. This is a novel of excess, of ambition, of genius, with threads of theatricality and black humour running through its pages – and I think every reader will respond differently to the sensory tidal wave. There’s only one way to find out for yourself – strap on your armbands and get swimming!

Source: I bought this book from a local charity shop.