Saturday, 4 August 2012

Review: 'Perfume, the Story of a Murderer' by Patrick Süskind

I read this novel in German, its original language, during the summer a couple of years ago. At the time I was fourteen, perhaps a bit too young for a book that contains murder and a mass orgy, yet I was enchanted by it. It is a brilliant book which had me reading for hours on end and completely satisfied when I put it down.
In the slums of eighteenth-century France, the infant Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born with one sublime gift—an absolute sense of smell. As a boy, he lives to decipher the odors of Paris, and apprentices himself to a prominent perfumer who teaches him the ancient art of mixing precious oils and herbs. But Grenouille's genius is such that he is not satisfied to stop there, and he becomes obsessed with capturing the smells of objects such as brass doorknobs and frest-cut wood. Then one day he catches a hint of a scent that will drive him on an ever-more-terrifying quest to create the "ultimate perfume"—the scent of a beautiful young virgin. 
A novel consists out of words, ink on a page, nothing else. Yet good authors are able to create with words, to carry you away to a different world. Süskind is one of these authors. At first sight, it might be difficult to see how a novel could convey a scent, yet Süskind has a way with words that immediately calls forth all your memories of scents and smells. As an example, take the next excerpt which expresses the message of the novel. 

Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.

I think everyone immediately remembers a scent they were unable to shake, that stayed with them and if an author is able to recall that scent for you, you know you have a great book in front of you.

Jean-Baptiste is a very strange protagonist. You don't really understand him that much because he is so different. And yet I think his desperate search for his own scent is very recognizable for everyone. He is searching for his own identity, something that sets him apart from everyone else and makes his journey identifiable for the reader. Yet not all of us go to the same extremes, which allows us to still feel morally right at the end of the novel.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer PosterI already mentioned how beautifully Süskind writes about scent, but he is simply amazing at creating beautiful settings. I don't just mean the nature surrounding the characters, I mean the way he sets up scenes, lets them tale their natural course and then gives them an ending you would not expect. It means that the novel is much more interesting because a suspense is created. In effect, this novel is a bit of a detective/thriller novel. This together with the writing style makes it a book you cannot put down.

In 2006 there was a movie made: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. I really liked the movie because it really got across Süskind's descriptions of scent. Tom Tykwer did an amazing job at filming it in such a way that it becomes a real experience. You feel like you discover and hear and see at the same time as Jean-Baptiste. Ben Wishaw is brilliant as Jean-Baptiste, especially in portraying the desperation of the character and Alan Rickamn is simply a hero. So I definitely recommend watching the movie, but I think it would be more fun to watch it after reading the novel.

I give this book...


It is a briliant book, a classic, that I recommend to everyone who loves reading. It is suspenseful, beautiful and every suprising. The ending is simply mind blowing and I highly recommend the movie!

So, have you read this book? Did you like Jean-Baptise?


  1. It must have been a good experience reading this book in the original German. I read it a few years ago in English and to be honest, I thought it was a bit silly, especially the ending. It just wasn't a book for me, so I'm pleased you like it more than I do!

  2. I frist heard about the movie, then the book. I will definitely choose to read the book first! At the moment I am reading Mme Bovary in french. I couldn't help notice in your review that you did not mention anything about reading in German Was it an exhausting experience? Did it sometimes leave you putting more emphasis on the words instead of the plot, or is your proficiency in the language such that it flows....just curious..

    1. I am half-German, so it was relatively easy. But reading it in a language you don't usually speak can be distracting at times! :)

    2. I can understand now that it was easy reading....I'm spending hours reading in french and covering just a few pages. Just have to keep at it, I guess!

  3. I've been meaning to read it ever since I saw the movie, but I can't seem to get around to do it. I liked the movie, it was very intense, tragic and beautiful, so I'm sure I'd like the book. I'll try it some time. Great review!

  4. Wow, your review and excerpt are great. I'm going to put Perfume on my library list. Haven't read any books by this author.

  5. Echo your thoughts about Suskind's ability to convey smell. One of the most memorable for me was his description of the stench on the streets in Paris and the high levels of body odour exuded by the population. I lost interest towards the end though - it felt it was getting ever more improbable.