Paris, 1738: the fish market. Here, in the smelliest place of the smelliest city in the world, was born Jean-Baptiste Grenuille, the perfume genius.
From an early age, he can sense any kind and intensity of smell, he can perceive it at unbelievable distances, he discerns it with accurate attention, he keeps them in his mind as precious memories of a lifetime. Confident of this ability, he decides to become the greatest perfume maker in the world. However, his same gift will lead him to discover something that would change his life forever soon: he is the only human being not in possession of a smell. From here on Patrick Süskind would constantly surprise the reader with a series of turns of events, dividing the novel into four parts to show four different moments in the way the main character conceives his own existence.
The unusual plot catches the reader’s attention and immediately represents a seductive element but the whole thing is highlighted by a meticulous attention on the description of every element. The writing of The parfume, divided into short chapters, could almost be defined bureaucratic, characterized as it is by hundreds and hundreds of words that apparently divert the reader’s mind, looking forward to getting to the point and full of descriptive elements but, at the same time, one can’t help reading and appropriating of it, giving life to an intense process of identification with the protagonist.
The novel gives one the opportunity to consider human existence based on two different levels: the animal and the social one. Grenouille is an interesting character from a psychological point of view and, as a consequence, it is interesting to discover the relations he establishes with the society slowly. Nevertheless, before that as social individual, the character allows us to rediscover ourselves as animals: his abilities to survive and the rash use of his senses represent a clear example of this. He does not need to see, because, like a nocturnal animal, it is always his sense of smell that shows him the way, the danger, the rain.
Smells of any kind are described, smells a human being has perhaps never thought of, and has never even mentally defined. It represents a clear return to the roots, considering human nature in its most primordial existence. This attention to olfactory details creates a real persuasion aura surrounding the story, in the same way the protagonist’s fragrances are able to persuade men’s hearts. Grenuille lives and breaths as a social being; smells and survives as an animal.
Yielding moments, characterized by a warm human touching tone, are alternated with brutal, visceral, and at times erotic scenes, described with the same dedication and precision of the previous ones, that shock and upset the viewers. The alternating of these moments allows us to be hit, firstly with tenderness and then with aggressiveness, by the protagonist, as if we were one of his many victims. The detailed description also permits us to educate ourselves on the world of perfume, through the explanation of distillation techniques, or on the existence of a multitude of different aromatic herbs and flowers’ rarest essences.
The novel, published in 1985, had a great success, so much so that in 2006 it was readapted into a movie with the same title, directed by Tom Tyker, which sees Ben Whishaw as Grenuille and Dustin Hoffman as the perfume maker Baldini. Its success doesn’t stop at the movie theater: many draw inspiration from it such as Scentless Apprentice by Nirvana, and Du riechst so gut (“You smell so good”) by the German Group Rammstein. Finally, in 2018, a homonymous series inspired by the novel was presented on Netflix.
Translation by Laura Marini and Giulia Zanelli, edited by Jenovia Amisti Smith
Laura Marini and Giulia Zanelli are students of the Linguistic Sciences and Foreign Letters faculty at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Brescia, Italy; they collaborate with Inkroci in the translation project coordinated by Professor Jenovia Amisti Smith.