Many years ago an acquaintance with a cultivated taste for strong drinks recommended that I read this famous work, particularly effective, he insisted, after several of those concoctions. He also hyped the book as "mind-blowing" (likely betraying one of his own habits), but we are drifting far from our cove. In point of fact, Das Parfum had long been known to me; yet I had never bothered to move past my standard bookstore leaf-through because the story smacked far too much of that frightful misnomer called magical realism. You will hear about it if you are ever unfortunate enough to attend one of those catchy courses on world literature invariably taught by some hipster mediocrity who loves talking up colonialism, relativism and other impish idolatries, and if you go in for that sort of stuff, there's little that can be done to help you. To be frank, there is nothing magical or real about these works. They are fairy tales, true enough; but instead of revelling in the childish wonder that allows a fairy tale to operate at once as entertainment and allegory, magical realism quickly devolves into socio-political twaddle. It becomes the triumph of native lore over the cold, hard statistics being compiled by the cold, hard conquerors, often understood, in turn, as the New World in its nativeness and the Old World in its demands. Thankfully, our story unfolds exclusively in Old Europe, if demanding enough to remind us why so many of its inhabitants once sought out another realm.
Our senses will revolve around a small, crooked and ostensibly effete Frenchman by the name of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a frog in both name and appearance. Grenouille is introduced as are many an anti-hero: by the plight of his orphanhood, the hopelessness of his indigence, and his wretched physical condition of his mortal shape. After harrowing, wicked experiences as a parentless urchin who could barely fend for himself, he labors as a tanner for Grimal (a French homophone for "grey evil"), a man known for working children to death – the newly industrial eighteenth century boasted an unkindness all its own – and he survives simply because we will him to do so. We, his readers, know that he cannot die before he has accomplished what God – a term that when mentioned to him much later on provokes "such a blank look that one would think he had the word for the first time" – has determined he must do. He must live on because he has a gift that might seem, in that age antecedent to proper sewer systems and hygiene, particularly overwhelming: an unrivaled sense of smell. And soon he masters "all the odors of Paris," which like any city of that period greatly resembled a cistern of unending filth.
Grenouille goes along with his plight for the lack of any better options, his indifference to his physical well-being making him almost the ideal galley slave. Soon, however, he learns of another career path, and its discovery is precipitated by fate one festive night:
He was just about to leave the boring fireworks performance to head home along the Galerie du Louvre when the wind brought something to him, something tiny and hardly noticeable, a crumb, an atom of a scent, no, something smaller still: the notion or hint of a scent rather than an actual smell, and yet at the same time it was most certainly the hint of something that he had never smelled before .... For the first time it was not only his greedy character revived by some insult that hurt, but also, as it were, his heart. It seemed strange to him that this scent could be the key to the ordering of all other scents – and if you didn't understand this point, you could not say you understood anything about scents. And he, Grenouille, would have wasted his life if he did not manage to possess it.
Where that scent leads Grenouille is hardly a secret; but what he does when he finds it, foreshadowing the hideous rituals of the novel's last act, need not be revealed on these pages. The faintest whiff and the slightest possible distinction between odors are as clear to Grenouille as a species of bird to the ornithologist or a book in an endless library to the omnilegent. Since Grenouille is creative, self-serving, and wicked in his devotion to his pursuits, he dreams of what all evil genius dreams: neverending, globe-spanning fame. To attain such an end he secures, with repeated displays of his unearthly talents, an apprenticeship with one of Paris's erstwhile great parfumiers, a bloated bourgeois pig called Baldini. Baldini eases slowly into his Salieri role – one more than suspects that the Italian surnames bespeak a fearful symmetry – with Grenouille's unstoppable genius becoming more a source of income than of envy, and soon Baldini is again the most renowned parfumier in all of Paris. But Grenouille's fame will be different than all other glories ever achieved:
He knew now that he had the power to do more. He knew that he could improve that scent. He knew he would able to create a scent that was not only human but superhuman, the scent of an angel, so indescribably good and life-affirming that he who smelled it became bewitched, and simply had to love him, Grenouille, the bearer of that scent, with all his heart.
The comparison to Mozart ends there, due in no small part to Grenouille's self-assessment as, well, "completely and utterly evil" (subsequent events do not in the least deter us from this initial evaluation). It would be enough for a good man with Grenouille's abilities to make the most sensational jasmine, honeysuckle, and lilac perfumes the world could ever know. If money or comfort motivated our crooked friend, that would indeed apply – but some devils have little interest in the currencies of men.
Das Parfum is, very much to Süskind's credit, not the kind of novel ordinarily subsumed by my shelves. Its themes, while not quite commercial, are familiar in that way that pastiches of ideas and galleries of oft-used secondary characters for a few brief, ignorant moments seem fresh (this is a book that could not possibly be filmed, and yet it has been). Apart from our olfactory freak, no one is really accorded much originality, even if their stereotypes are parodic and therefore mostly efficacious. Nevertheless, the work's style and self-confidence remain mystifyingly engrossing, perhaps because as foul as Grenouille is, his passion is to an art to which we, shallow beasts, will always be subject. There are numerous unsettling passages, including the sacrifice of animals (why modern letters is so focused on these slaughters is still a puzzle; perhaps because we are to be tacitly equated to such beasts), but most of the cruelty is implied, most of the mayhem offstage, and most of our worries unfounded. Yet in one startling passage towards the culmination of our plot, not our story, something occurs that we somehow sense will not. Moreover, we expect something else to occur – something much more in line with the typical topicality of the magical realism charlatans – and are relieved when it does not take place. And in the end, what does take place? Is the description of that public square as real as it seems to old Grenouille? As real, I suppose, as those Parisian catacombs.