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Fringe Report is now closed. Fringe Report closed on its 10th anniversary, Thursday 12 July 2012. It remains online as a record of 10 exciting years in the arts. Till July 2013, previously unwritten content is being added to the site from the past 10 years, but we are no longer reviewing new material. You can still write to us on the existing email addresses. Good luck with your shows.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Jean Baptist Grenouille sniffs and murders his way through 18th Century France... a character impossible to sympathise with (writes Ellen Andersen) who nevertheless compels
by Ellen Andersen
At a market stall hidden along the winding streets of 18th Century Paris, a place of stench, sickness, rot and decay, Jean Baptist Grenouille is born to a world that would rather he did not exist. His mother leaves him to die, and he is rapidly passed from wet nurse to wet nurse, each frightened of him, his insatiable appetite for milk, and the fact that he has no personal odour. But this universal dislike does not bother Grenouille, who is eventually dumped at a boarding house for unwanted children. Grenouille does not care if people like or dislike him. In fact, Grenouille does not care for humanity very much at all. All that Grenouille is concerned with is scent and smell. Not just nice smells, but any smells. Body odour, rotting fish, festering wounds, the polluted river Seine, Grenouille has to smell them all. And if he has smelt them once, he never forgets them.
Then Grenouille comes upon the exquisite scent of a young girl, one unlike anything he's smelt before, a blend of 'evanescence and substance... slight and frail as well, and yet solid and sustaining, like a piece of thin shimmering silk... and yet again not like silk, but like pastry soaked in honey-sweet milk'. Obsessed, he finds the girl whose scent it is, and kills her without emotion, feeling no guilt or remorse, but also no pleasure in the kill 'for he had only one concern - not to lose the least trace of her scent'. And once she is dead he smells her 'from head to toe', capturing and memorising her scent forever.
This encounter gives Grenouille his purpose in life, his driving need, above all else, to capture scents like the one he has just experienced, and keep them alive. Having learnt how to capture scent in Paris, he travels across France to Grasse 'for decades now the uncontested centre for the production of and commerce in scents, perfumes, soaps and oils'. There he attempts to create the perfect perfume, using the scent of young girls across the city, one which will make anyone who smells it fall irrevocably in love with the wearer. But the only way Grenouille can achieve this is to murder the girls whose scent he needs, and this inevitably must lead to retribution from the ravaged town.
In Grenouille, Patrick Süskind creates a character it is impossible to sympathise with. There is nothing about him which inspires love or pity. Yet Patrick Süskind makes him so fascinating in his complete lack of emotion for any human being, and his self-obsessed love of smell, that his story compels. He sums up Grenouille perfectly as a tick 'stubborn, sullen and loathsome', waiting for an opportune moment to drop, and take what he needs to make himself happy. Repeatedly Grenouille hibernates away from the world, giving 'nothing but his dung – no smile, no cry, no glimmer in the eye, not even his own scent', until a chance arrives for him to pursue his own interests.
All of the characters in Perfume are fascinating, but inspire little sympathy. Many are loathsome in their own ways, from Madame Guillard, the owner of the boarding house Grenouille grows up in - who possesses 'not the slightest twinge of conscience' - to Madame Arnulfi, for whom Grenouille works in Grasse, and who provides him with the least possible provisions on which to survive. Perhaps this is the writer's way of justifying his main character's lack of concern for people in general.
The novel is a story about smells, the emotions and human responses they invoke, and Patrick Süskind is masterful at describing them: 'the difference between the odour of the blossoms and their preserved scent: the specific odour of the oil - no matter how pure - lay like a gossamer veil over the fragment tableau of the original, softening, gently diluting its bravado - and, perhaps, only then making its beauty bearable for normal people.' Through Grenouille, he explains the power of scents, to make the wearer appear inconspicuous, to arouse sympathy - or even passionate and unconditional love.
Perfume is slow, at times meandering, but at the same time it captivates. There are times when it feels as if the writer is enjoying the flow of his own words a little too much, leading to passages which do not lend much to the story. But it's exquisitely told, and haunts long after finishing.
(c) Ellen Andersen 2009
reviewed 26 February 2009 / London
NOTES - Perfume by Patrick Süskind (1949-); translated from German by John E Woods. Available from eg Amazon. Example of edition: UK hardback edition ISBN - 0-241-11919-7, 263 pages.
Fringe Report (c) Fringe Report 2002-2013
Fringe Report (c) Fringe Report 2002-2013