Robert Schwarz (review date autumn 1985)
SOURCE: Schwarz, Robert. Review of Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Mörders, by Patrick Süskind. World Literature Today 59, no. 4 (autumn 1985): 587.
[In the following review, Schwarz summarizes the plot and themes of Das Parfum, comparing the novel to the works of Günter Grass and Marcel Proust.]
In eighteenth-century Paris the illegitimate urchin Grenouille, endowed with a spectacular sense of smell, hires himself to a rich perfume maker [in Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Mörders]. His innate genius at identifying and creating fragrances from memory would make him famous, but he cares nothing for riches or prestige. His is the kind of inborn genius which feeds on itself, not unlike Mozart's music or Rembrandt's painting. His self-contained, misanthropically self-sufficient, and totally introverted personality, devoid of all feelings and morality, always at war with the world, makes Oskar in The Tin Drum seem a normal, gregarious lad by comparison. Grenouille's unique olfactory fantasies and reminiscences would put a Proust to shame. His inexhaustible talent for conceiving ever-new aromatic combinations and concoctions fills out his whole life. Grenouille (i.e., “the frog”) is the perfect idiot savant, bereft of ethical impulses, a wizard of aroma.
After Paris, he moves to the South of France, where he at first spends seven years as a recluse, then reenters the world of human beings, determined to find fulfillment by finding the ultimate, absolute olfactory experience. This he achieves by killing twenty-five girls whose body odors he distills, thus creating a unique fragrance. With this deed he accomplishes his final aim in life, his personal “salvation.”
Sick? Yes, for Grenouille is a monstrous pervert and fetishist, a moral Neanderthal, whose nose, rather than mind or heart, dictates his life. His pathological single-mindedness is frightening. However, this is also a thrilling and formidable novel about an almost wholly unexplored subject: the dynamics of that stepchild among sense organs, the nose. Süskind writes with a cool hand and is always in control. (He also throws in a free course on the chemistry of perfumery.) One can see Grenouille as an object of Freudian interest but also as a Mephistophelian disciple of de Sade. Can one, at the end of the novel (which shall not be revealed in this review), still say with the philosopher, “Nothing human is alien to me”?