Mr. Summer’s Story
With the appearance in 1985 of his novel Das Parfum (Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, 1986), the literary reputation of Patrick Süskind seemed bound for meteoric heights. In a few short years this grisly tale of perversion and murder captured the attention of a reading public around the world in more than two dozen translations. Set in eighteenth century France, the novel centers on the criminal adventures of Jean- Baptiste Grenouille, a diabolical perfume-maker who extracts the ingredients for his ultimate scent from the corpses of his female victims. Alienated by a quirk of nature from the rest of humanity because of his own lack of human scent, and blessed-or cursed- with a preternatural olfactory sense, Grenouille is obsessed by the desire to create the smell that will make him a god among men. This obsession for identity, love, and power drives him to his crimes as well as to his inevitable downfall.
Alienation is also at the heart of Süskind’s tale Mr. Summer’s Story, yet the contrast between the main characters and the general atmosphere of the narratives could hardly be more striking. While the picaresque antihero Grenouille carries out his evil machinations against the historical backdrop of Enlightenment France, Mr. Summer wanders harmlessly across postwar southern Germany. Mr. Summer, like Grenouille, is a loner and outsider, but his world is idyllic compared to the gothic world that the fiendishly ingenious parfumeur inhabits. In the earlier novel Süskind spells out in realistic detail the terror that Grenouille inflicts; the narrator of the shorter work, however, is allowed only a glimpse of the inner terror that keeps its title figure in constant motion. The madness that propels Mr. Summer incessantly across the countryside remains almost hidden from the reader’s view and, in the end, proves to be entirely self-destructive in nature.
Mr. Summer and his wife had settled in the narrator’s village shortly after the end of World War II, but even his first name remains a mystery to the villagers until his obituary appears in the local paper. Although they know little about him, he is a familiar figure on the local scene for years, a moving object wandering the roads along the lakes and through the woods surrounding the village for miles around. In motion from dawn to dusk throughout the year, Mr. Summer is capable of covering incredible distances carrying only a walking stick and a backpack. He is always dressed in one of two distinct hiking outfits, one for the winter months and another for the summer season, which, for him, lasts from early March to late October. In the context of the years of Germany’s economic miracle, which brings motorized transportation even to this remote countryside, Mr. Summer’s resolute attachment to his walking habit grows increasingly eccentric.
Yet despite his eccentricities, he gradually becomes an accustomed and, finally, an ignored part of daily life of the adults of the village. Busy with their own concerns and affairs, they simply accept his directionless ramblings and find empty explanations for his odd behavior. For the narrator, on the other hand, who recalls his boyhood impressions from the 1950’s and 1960’s, Mr. Summer is an open enigma and a source of wonder. The innocence of his judgment still unclouded by the peculiarities of adult reasoning, the boy rejects an externally imposed diagnosis in favor of one that stems from Mr. Summer himself. Along with the boy’s mother, many of the other grown-ups are persuaded that the term “claustrophobic” holds the key to his mysterious behavior. Mr. Summer roams the countryside, this diagnosis baldly declares, simply because he is unable to sit still in his own room. In spite of the medical authority his mother cites to bolster her argument, her son demonstrates its meaninglessness to himself as he lies in bed one night before falling asleep. He finally decides that only Mr. Summer possesses the truth about himself, and by his passivity in the story’s last episode he shows that he has learned a basic lesson in human empathy.
At one point in his recollections, the narrator spots the familiar figure scurrying along the horizon in the distance and likens his movement to the hands on a clock. The rapid, regular pace of his legs and walking stick remind the boy of the hand counting off the seconds, while the relentless motion of the entire figure across the landscape resembles that of the hand that marks the passing hours. This explicit association of Mr. Summer with time occurs just after the boy has suffered his first disappointment in matters of the heart, an episode that has turned the landscape...
(The entire section is 1917 words.)