Monday, April 30, 2007

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind

This novel has been around a fair while now (published in 1985) and there has been a lot of positive commentary about it, but it is only recently that I managed to read it. Sure, I bought a copy back in the '80's and I vaguely remember stuffing it in the pocket of some jacket I can no longer find. But there has been a movie made of it and so various booksellers started the hardsell (not that the actual movie will get here until October). As it happened, I picked up a copy of the DVD while I was travelling and so we made Perfume my bookclub's official selection for April, with a viewing of the movie to follow pizza, wine and discussion.

Some comments need to be made specifically about the movie, in particular the odd things which happen when you buy movies from Vietnamese DVD shops. We were a little intrigued to see the blurb boldly state this to be a "swashbuckling space adventure" and curious about the Ashlee Simpson song that was promised as an extra, among other weirdities. Nothing prepared us for the sub-titles, however. We kind of thought they might be in poor English, but not so. What really confused us was to have, in a movie about a French fellow from the 1750's, references in the sub-titles to "Ash", "Linda" and "Scotty" and to trucks revving and the near constant exhortation "kill him!". Hah - we had the sub-titles for The Evil Dead. Initially distracting, we did have fun seeing how remote from the story the sub-titles got and only noted one spookily close correspondence.

By and large, however, the movie was a pretty faithful recreation of the novel, with one notable period excised and another changed quite markedly. One big disappointment: Jean-Baptiste spends seven years in a cave, grows hair down to his knees and an equivalent beard but in the movie this period and growth is truncated to a mere seven weeks.

The novel opens with Paris presented as a sequence of smells amounting to "a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women". The basic story is quite simple: Jean-Baptiste Grenouille ("frog") has a freakishly well developed sense of smell and no sense of morality, unless one counts a consciousness of one's own evilness. He is "gifted and abominable". He is also completely obsessed. His mother is a fishmonger, who has a habit of casually discarding her new-born babies among the waste of her trade. The only thing that saves our hero is the fact that she dies: he is noticed, and spends his early years living off the parish. He has to decide at an early age whether he will live or die: people don't like him, because they can't smell him, so living requires him to keep much of him secret from the world. He really doesn't seem to have much in terms of a presence: hardly talks, has very little internal life, he is just the single-minded pursuit of whatever his goal might be (something we really don't get told until towards the end). An important idea in this book is the way in which our own odour constitutes our identity, our very presence.

He is sold aged 8 to a tanner, for whom he is very useful because he manages to survive the diseases that normally kill and gains immunity. In his teens, on an evening walk, he becomes conscious of an unfamiliar odour, one which completely enchants him: it is that of a girl just on the cusp of becoming a woman. This is perfection. Because J-B is a complete smello-freak, his only way of being with her is to capture her odour: with a chilling lack of foreplay or regret, he kills her (it takes about three lines of text) and has her scent available to him throughout the rest of his life.

This first part of the novel did drag a bit (the movie ran through it fairly quickly) but it really came alive when J-B talked his way into a job with a perfumier. There is a lot of detail in this part about the perfume trade in France in the mid 18th century and about the making of perfumes: detail I found fascinating.
I have no idea if the author intended it to be there or not, is the way in which it embeds so many legal ideas. It creates what could be a case study in competition law when the old guard seeks to resist the new (and might even be suggesting that the new is the work of the devil). It explores the exploitation of workers, passing off of someone else's work as one's own, the copyright protection given to original works and the ways in which someone might misrepresent what one is selling.

Jean-Baptiste is a genius when it comes to making perfumes, either copies of others or new ones - his boss makes a fortune off him. I really enjoyed the clash between them: the boss has no talent, just a plodding methodology whereas J-B has no technique at all. He does, however, recognise the usefulness of technique, as he has ideas of his own as to the sorts of scents he would like to capture. Initially, these are innocuous - glass and door knobs, but he moves on to puppies (we had a couple of puppies watching the movie with us - I was careful to warn them of scenes they might find disturbing).

J-B's thirst to develop his abilities takes him away from Paris, but he finds within him a curious abhorrence of other people: hence the seven years in a cave up a mountain, where he can play back all of the scents he has ever encountered just as we might play back a movie. The mountain sojourn is terminated by an episode I still have trouble accepting: at the age of 25, he suddenly discovers he doesn't smell of anything. Huh? He has the finest nose ever and never noticed this before? This profoundly upsets him, causing him to go off and do something about it. First he is patronised by a local Lord with a whacko idea that the earth is bad for us (the bit that is cut from the movie) but ultimately he gets himself into a perfumery.

Here, all hell breaks loose! He has two ambitions - one to play around with various perfumes for himself, so that he can not only have a presence in the world but use it to alter people's perceptions of him. Second is to create the
über perfume, which involves essence of virgin - the novel really gives new meaning to the idea of virgin oil (and I think the movie takes this pun a step further). Here's where the murders anticipated by the title really start to happen: he needs 24 ordinary virgins as well as a very special one, Laure, who smells just like the girl who started everything off. And so the story runs on to its rather perverse end. I guess given the perverse nature of the tale, something weird had to happen at the end to cap it all off, but it was all a bit "what the...?".

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