Saturday, May 19, 2012

Books we love | Perfume by Patrick Suskind

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was born in the cesspit known as Paris, sometime in early 18th century, when according to Suskind "The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of mouldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds , and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulfur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughter houses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from the bellies that of onions and from the bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumors disease."

But not Grenouille, born beneath a swarm of flies, who had nought an odor. You can imagine the shock. Everything stank but this child and so he was passed from one home to another, each set of hands wanting to disengage in instant disgust. But this child had a gift. The gift of smell. He could smell the rocks on a seabed even as he was twenty miles inland. As he grew "he was no longer smelling mere wood, but kinds of wood:maple wood, oak wood, pine wood, elm wood, pearwood, old young rotting moldering, mossy wood down to single logs, chips and splinters." From this he created a vocabulary of odors and armed with his education he left for Paris.

By now I was hooked; the prose was akin to sinking your teeth into luxurious dark chocolate, so decadent, you bite into it and it begins to melt because of the heat emitted by your breath and hands. It coats your tongue and when its done, you lick the remnants off the outside of your mouth and perhaps the little big hanging from your chin.

I miss reading fairy tales. Sometimes I think back on the otherworldliness of Hansel and Gretel or Snow White and I wonder how they were ever written for children, their almost macabre plotting convincing me they are bastardized fairy tales for adults. Otherwise how can you explain a children's story that involved eating children as candy! Evocative and atmospheric, my scariest childhood character was the wicked Queen Ravenna. Patrick Suskind's Perfume is a fairy tale for adults and is the most extraordinary one I have read for a long time.

The story follows his adventures as a tanning apprentice, his entry into the hallowed world of perfumery and the resounding success of his creations and his coming to terms with the fact that despite his ability to deconstruct the composition of all animate and inanimate objects, he couldn't smell himself. He is shocked and horrified. Slowly a monster is born. We see him retreat from the world into an agonizing solitude and then reemerge stronger and with purpose. His purpose : to create scents by extracting them from living objects. How far does he go to create that almighty scent that will make him human?

Suskind's narrative tone is fairy tale like, filled with sardonic humor that belies the horror that he unleashes on us. This is story telling at its best and I am sure there is much that can be read between the lines. Perhaps there is a tale of morality tucked in somewhere there. The New York Times called it a "A fable of criminal genius..." Perhaps, But how can you when the lines are this beautiful.

A note on the hardback edition

Don't read this book as an e-book. This is the kind of book you want to keep, and even re-read at leisure. You want to feel the weight of it in your palms. It is published by one of my favorite publishers, Alfred K Knopf. This particular version is printed on thick paper with uncut edges.
Buy Perfume: The Story of a Murderer from This version costs Rs 1078
There is ofcourse a penguin version at a very reasonable Rs 205 as well.

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