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"Perfume" Book Review - Lunchtime Lit with Mel Carriere

Mel Carrier now sends his malodorous book reviews out into the world from his beet shack at the base of the Rockies.

In Perfume, Patrick Suskind turns murder into art.

In Perfume, Patrick Suskind turns murder into art.

This Book Stinks

This Book Stinks - the title of this capsule, is perhaps the greatest praise I have ever lavished upon a written work, during the 2,200 plus days I have been creating my Lunchtime Lit reviews. Perfume, by Patrick Suskind, finally opened my eyes, or should I say my nose, to how the human sense of smell affects our perception of the world. Although the Homo sapiens sniffer certainly cannot reach the olfactory abilities of Canis familiaris, man's best friend, Suskind's novel explores the role that the nose plays in human interaction, suggesting that even our substandard snouts influence our behavior. We react to olfactory stimuli without knowing that we are following our nose, Toucan Sam style, perhaps being led along by the proboscis. For smell is merely Suskind's metaphor for the manner that human beings are easily held as helpless thralls, under the spell of all manner of sensory manipulation.

Does smell really dominate our decisions, as a more literal reading of Perfume might suggest? When we go out on a date with a member of the opposite sex are we unknowingly sniffing them up, to see if they meet our standards? Sounds a little creepy, and might merit a slap if done too overtly. Females, certainly, can turn heads with a generous splash of the pheromone upon their persons, but even if we leave the house without applying any artificial sweeteners, does our body odor influence the way we perceive others?

Let's forget the obvious, more extreme examples - you forgot to brush your teeth or you haven't bathed in a week. In these conditions anybody would cringe and back away. But let us, for the sake of argument, assume normal body odor. Does the bare essence emitted from our pores, not degenerated by layers of sweat or enhanced by a spritz of cologne, have an impact upon the way we are treated? Perfume is the first work to suggest this possibility to me, to open my mind to the idea that our sense of smell, often ignored unless completely repugnant, or thoroughly delectable, may be unwittingly leading us down the scent trail, toward doom or delight.

Grasse, France, the world's perfume capital.

Grasse, France, the world's perfume capital.

Lunchtime Lit Rules

Lunchtime Lit Reviews have also often been said to stink, but unlike author Patrick Suskind, Mel Carriere does not take it as a compliment. He is very touchy about his critiques, painstakingly composed about books read only during his half hour Postal lunch break, hence the Lunchtime Lit name.

Lunchtime Lit Year to Date Recap * **

BookPagesWord CountDate StartedDate FinishedLunchtimes Consumed

Every Man Dies Alone

500

194,500

6/27/2020

8/20/2020

29

The Three Body Problem

390

118,450

8/22/2020

10/1/2020

21

King Jesus

413

182,530

10/2/2020

1/13/2021

36

The City We Became

479

130,660

1/15/2021

2/25/2021

25

El Paso

477

183,280

2/26/2021

4/16/2021

30

The Left Hand of Darkness

304

85,450

4/17/2021

5/15/2021

19

Later

234

66,120

6/2/2021

6/23/2021

12

Perfume

310

86,740

6/25/2021

7/16/2021

15

*Word counts are estimated by hand-counting a statistically significant 23 pages, then extrapolating this average page count across the entire book. When the book is available on a word-count website, I rely on that total if it looks legit.

**Thirty-one other titles, with a total estimated word count of 6,879,084 and 1,088 lunchtimes consumed, have been reviewed under the guidelines of this series.

Homage to The Human Honker?

As readers, we assume when we crack a book that the role of its author is to paint a picture in our heads, to make us visualize stunning images that are not present in dots of dull black ink, sprinkled on a bland white page. Most of the time, storytellers weave their landscape by appealing to our eyes, our ears, our body of human experience, rarely our sinuses. For instance, when I reviewed Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy, I included the following quote:

For the next two weeks they would ride by night, they would make no fire...They rode their horses through the tracks of their dismounting and they buried their stool like cats and they barely spoke at all. Crossing those barren gravel reefs in the night they seemed remote and without substance. Like a patrol condemned to ride out some ancient curse. A thing surmised from the blackness by the creak of leather and the chink of metal.

Beautiful, powerful words indeed, but written strictly from a visual, auditory, and cultural perspective, lacking the olfactory angle. We have all seen barren gravel, we have all heard the chink of metal, and we all have all been imbued culturally by the concept of a curse hanging over our heads, to varying degrees of belief or disbelief.

Where does smell come into play in that McCarthy quote? It does not seem to be sticking its nose into that particular paragraph, but other authors have, from time to time, paid homage to the human honker. To cite one example, in American Gods Neil Gaiman writes “The house smelled musty and damp, and a little sweet, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of long-dead cookies.” We can all visualize the smell of long-dead cookies, when we dig into our own cookie jars of collected scents and hearken back to the untouchables that came out of our sister's first failed attempt at baking. Maybe sis burned them, maybe they were too doughy, maybe they crumbled into bits when you picked them up, and just weren't worth the effort to eat. At any rate, the cookies sat there in the kitchen unloved, getting riper every day until Mom decided to throw the mess out.

Skilled writers like to touch on most of the senses like this, because human experience is a hodge-podge of sensations produced by the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and fingertips. Perfume, on the other hand, is the first story I have read where smell completely dominates. Of course, Suskind cannot completely ignore the eyes and the ears - the reader has to know about the impenetrable darkness of a deep grotto or about the noise of an angry mob, clamoring for the head of a loathsome murderer, but for the most part the focus of Perfume is on the nose. The olfactory descriptions are the richest and most complex my mind has ever laid nose upon. So when I say that Perfume stinks, I am saying that its author accomplished his mission, that he has come out smelling like a rose and stinking to the high heavens simultaneously, both of these feats being accomplished through some of the most redolent language I have ever encountered.

Most of the time, storytellers like Cormac McCarthy weave their landscape by appealing to our eyes, our ears, our body of human experience, rarely our sinuses

Most of the time, storytellers like Cormac McCarthy weave their landscape by appealing to our eyes, our ears, our body of human experience, rarely our sinuses

Empathy for The Devil?

Perfume caused me to wonder whether a book about a loathsome human being can actually merit the label of beautiful? This is to ask ourselves whether breathtaking works of art in other fields have been created around sordid, distasteful themes. Guernica, by Pablo Picasso, depicts the bombing of a Basque village by Nazi pilots, an outrage that resulted in the murder of 1,654 civilians. A gruesome subject, but a painting nonetheless stimulating to the eyes, causing delight with its geometric interplay of black, white, and gray tones, even if the distorted images are of burning people, severed limbs, and agonizing animals.

In music, Tchaikovsky's sixth symphony is said by some to be his suicide note, delivering a bummer of a finale that is accepted as his most splendid piece. Other beautiful bummers are found in works of cinema. 1993's Schindler's List takes on the subject of the holocaust, one of history's most brutal atrocities, but leaves viewers dazzled by film-making brilliance. There is little doubt that the ugliest aspects of human experience can be turned into beauty by the skilled stroke of a brush, the playing of a chord, the rolling of a camera, or the touch of a pen.

Perfume demonstrates that a foul smell can be transform into a captivating scent through the power of a superb wordsmith. The novel relates the story of an unloved baby who was born in garbage, raised in the stench of a tanner's shop, became a perfumer's apprentice through the power of his unrivaled nose, then showed his indifference to human life by murdering 26 women. An abhorrent subject indeed, but penned in the most delectable prose, in the same way the canvas of Guernica was used by Picasso to turn death, destruction, and mayhem into grace and elegance.

In my last review of Stephen King's Later, I bemoaned the overuse of the serial killer genre. For those of you who read that one, I might seem to be contradicting myself here, giving props to a story that appears to be about a serial killer, on the surface. But Perfume is much more than that, it is an expose into the head of a foul fiend, one that does not repulse us by what we find there, for a change.The interior of Grenouille's head is not the fetid, stinking pit of horrors we expect. Instead, we sniff around and discover some things we can admire. The killer Jean Baptiste Grenouille is more than just a savage obsessed with murder, he is god-given talent personified. He can dissect smells like a neurosurgeon splitting synapses. His nose is unsurpassed, and killing is just an adjunct to his aptitude. He kills because he collects scents, not because he collects corpses.

Sympathy for the devil is not what Perfume is about. It is more about the killer in me is the killer in you. Only a few twisted individuals will read this book and take pleasure in the gruesome acts that Grenouille commits. Honestly, there is not much for a sicko to take pleasure in. The murders themselves are not described in great detail, they are glossed over in a few pages, being besides the point. Unlike the typical cookie-cutter, mass produced serial killer novels that litter our bookstore shelves, in Perfume Suskind instead gives us not a casual glance, but a profound look into a killer's psyche. Some of what we see there causes a bit of empathy for the devil, because the MRI he takes of the innards of Grenouille's skull reveals a landscape that is both warped and picturesque, at once. That twisted talent behind the mundane mask is also capable of altering the topography of normal souls. A prevailing theme of Perfume is how a deviant genius can manipulate us into communal madness.

In Perfume, as in Picasso's Guernica, death and mayhem is turned into grace and elegance.

In Perfume, as in Picasso's Guernica, death and mayhem is turned into grace and elegance.

Suskind as Grenouille, Minus The Murders

The life of Perfume author Patrick Suskind rather mimics that of his fictional protagonist Grenouille, minus the murders. At one point in the novel, human scent becomes increasingly repugnant to Grenouille. He flees society, hiding high up in an alpine cave, where deeply ensconced in the bowels of a mountain his hound-dog's nose cannot smell people. The same thing appears to have happened to Suskind. After Perfume was on the German best-seller list for 9 years, realizing sales of 20 million copies and being translated into 49 languages, its author retreated into his own virtual cave, far from the stink of reception to his blockbuster novel, far from malodorous, amateur reviews of the exalted fragrance he penned, like this one.

Described as "a slender man with tiny metal-rim glasses, Suskind lives a reclusive life between Germany and France, where he still occupies the same small rooms he did before his electrifying success. He has given four interviews, and does not appear on television. He has declined multiple literary prizes, perhaps echoing the contempt Grenouille possessed for humanity and its arbitrary methods. In the spattering of autobiographical glimpses he has given into the creation of his art, Suskind claims to have such a poor memory he can barely remember what he has read or who wrote it, which liberates him from the anxiety of being influenced by other authors. Despite the shocking unorthodoxy of his masterwork, a novel non-pareil, he has stated that without plagiarism, nothing original can be written. Regrettably, since 2006 Suskind has not released any original words into the public forum at all. "As long as I don't have an idea," he says, "I won't write anything."

Suskind researched Perfume for two years, often by driving around on a motor scooter through the perfume country of southern France. The precise detail sniffed out there about the extraction of scents is evident on the pages of the novel. Although the book may be a flighty allegory about the manipulation of humanity toward perverse purposes, even an allusion to the insidious way the Nazis scented over their acts of mass murder, it remains grounded in technical detail. The book could very well serve as a beginner's primer into the art of perfume making.

There are more existing photos of Bigfoot and Nessie than there are of Perfume author Patrick Suskind.  Here's a rare one, captured in 2012.

There are more existing photos of Bigfoot and Nessie than there are of Perfume author Patrick Suskind. Here's a rare one, captured in 2012.

Du Riechst So Gut

I have lost count of how many lunchtime lit books I have stumbled upon by digging through my son's closet, on my way out the door for work, desperate for something to keep me entertained during my midday meal. For those of you have read a few of these reviews, it is a theme repeated so often it has probably become a little odoriferous in its own right.

Though my oldest son stayed in California when I moved to Colorado because, let's get real, why wouldn't he? - I managed to grab a bag full of his books and sneak them on the moving truck headed over the hump. Perfume was the latest of these to be pulled from that pilfered pile.

My son's own experience with the novel sheds light on Suskind's influence, first on German society, then the world at large. Being a fan of the German rock band Ramstein, he learned of Perfume via its association with the musical act's lead singer, Till Lindemann, who has proclaimed it as one of its favorites. Ramstein's first single, Du riechst so gut (You smell so good), is said to have been inspired by Suskind's story.

Deep sigh, with Perfume I have exhausted all of my son's books, and henceforward will have to look for my own. Sometimes I will be forced to pay for them, even full price. The impact on the quality of my reading menu remains to be seen, because Junior's unorthodox, out of the box tastes often made for tasty bill of fare. I have lost a stable source for dependable stories, and following my own nose doesn't always lead me to edible game at the end of the trail. The Goodwill store I frequented in Chula Vista, California was another surprisingly reliable bonanza of books, rising above the predictable vanilla found on the paperback aisle of retail chains, but the local one in Colorado carries the same insipid, recycled flavors favored by the regular reading rabble. The future of Lunchtime Lit may be in peril, I am at a loss on where to turn with my book-begging bowl.

But for the time being, Perfume definitely satisfied my lunchtime hunger pangs. The odors wafting in from that hash house may have alternated between tantalizing and repellent, but they were all rich smells, sublime scents, composed of multiple olfactory layers that tickled and teased the nose hairs. The stink of this novel is not metaphorical, it is real, master-perfumer Suskind scribbles these contrasting smells directly into the olfactory center of your brain. There they struggle and clash one against another, and you end up asking yourself how you could come away admiring the craft of the perfumer, rather than being revolted by the murderer and his methods. This makes me pose another question - is it possible to root for the bad guy, with a clear conscience?

Perfume raises troubling moral contradictions, like this, but ultimately its conflicting odors combine in a satisfying symbiosis, a concentrated fragrance that sends the nose off on a journey down paths that may be dark, but still illuminate the senses.

Murder as Art - Murder by Numbers (The Police)

Comments

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on October 25, 2021:

Thank you Devika. It is an entertaining book in a strange kind of way. It says a lot about what drives human perception, and how humans are easily deceived by their senses.

I really appreciate you dropping in.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on October 23, 2021:

Mel Carriere, These books sounds interesting and enjoyable to read. Your reviews say a lot about it and would like to read it too.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on October 20, 2021:

I really appreciate your visit Miz B. First of all, this is not your usual killer book. It is really very literary, with wonderful prose. The killing scenes are not detailed or gory - it is almost as if they are besides the point. As far as being able to put down a book after a half hour goes, that is about the limit I have for sitting still. After a half hour I am nodding off, no matter how good the book is. So I have my lunch book, and my bed book, and a book I carry in my car, all of them different, that I read at different times, only in spurts. The blood flows slower these days, I can't sit down and read a book in one sitting, like I used to when I was young.

Thanks for your delightful visit, once again.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on October 19, 2021:

You write a superb review, Mel, but I don't believe I want to read this book. I try to avoid these mad killer books, and I think that by adding scents, I wouldn't be able to stomach it. I noticed that you reviewed one of my all-time favorites, though, The Left Hand of Darkness.

I admire how you can read for 30 minutes and then put the book down. If I get a really good one, I don't have the will power to do that.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on October 16, 2021:

Thank you James. Yes, these books lead one down some interesting avenues, opening up explorations into the greater universe beyond the storyline. This novel definitely had a fascinating backstory behind it.

I appreciate you droppiing in.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on October 16, 2021:

Yes Jodah, sometimes there is a long dry spell in between good books. I can't say this is the best I've read, but it certainly is among the highest in literary value. The funnest part about Lunchtime Lit is not knowing what book is going to hit you next.

I appreciate you dropping in.

James C Moore from Joliet, IL on October 16, 2021:

I gotta admit I have wondered how to write descriptions by using scents and the sense of smell. That's reason enough for me to check this out. Your lit lunch go so much deeper than simply regurgitating the plot. You do the research and the read-search. Some info about the author and inspiration for a hit song by a rock band.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on October 16, 2021:

Mel, I would have to say this is one of the most positive reviews you have given in your ‘Lunchtime Lit’ series. Concentrating a storyline around the sense of smell is certainly something quite unique, especially a story about a serial killer. The author sounds like quite an eccentric character as well. I can’t wait to see what book you uncover next.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on October 16, 2021:

Bill, I wish you all the best on your operation. Thoughts, prayers, etc. etc. to you. This would be a nice short one you could curl up with while you are recuperating. There is definitely no comedy in it, which might bust a stitch or two.

I appreciate you dropping in.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on October 16, 2021:

Yes Pam, it's a little weird and sometimes disturbing, but since I read it at lunch it didn't induce nightmares. When you work at the post office you get so tired that nothing induces nightmares. I imagine nursing has the same sleep-inducing effect.

I appreciate you dropping in.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 16, 2021:

What a fascinating approach to a book. I have my operation coming in twelve days. I just might have to read this book; you have piqued my curiosity for sure, my friend.

Thanks for the review and Happy Weekend to you!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on October 16, 2021:

You seem to read some rather unique books, Mel. I appreciate this review. It is very interesting, but I don't think I will be reading this one. Reading your book reviews is always enjoyable.

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