I awaited “The Queen of the Night” impatiently, having read promising advance notices. I pre-ordered it, compared time zones (Adelaide/Seattle) days ahead and then synched my Kindle repeatedly until Alexander Chee’s novel downloaded. And…it’s rubbish. I avoided “Perfume” by Patrick Suskind for years, having decided that it was populist rubbish. I reluctantly opened it with a sneer after it had been praised on the ABC TV Bookshow. And… it’s very good. This I call my “The Crimson Petal and the White” snob-humiliation.
We all know the story; Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s unfortunate mother (who had “almost all her teeth in her mouth and some hair on her head and – except for gout and syphilis and a touch of consumption – suffered from no serious disease”) gives birth to him amid stinking fish guts. Grenouille has no odour of his own, but he can smell you (and all of your dirty little secrets) from a country mile away. He is the world’s greatest “nose”. Lacking a human smell Grenouille The No-one can be all but invisible. Once seen he is perceived as repulsive but negligible. He is compared with a meat-eating plant, a spider, a monster, a tick and an abomination. His fellow foundlings try to smother him. Unlike Bart Simpson’s soul or Peter Pan’s shadow however, Grenouille’s missing essence can be artificially provided. In later life, while wearing one of his carefully hand-crafted scents, Grenouille The Genius can choose to seem helpless or so adorable that you’d think he was Justin Bieber crossed with Michael Buble.
Perfume is a page-turner. Suskind’s evocation of eighteenth-century perfumery manufacture and distribution is lightly carried, intriguing and integral to the plot. The bland and creepy tone never falters. This is not a book for the squeamish, nor for those readers who dislike an unsympathetic protagonist. Grenouille puts the reader in mind of Oskar Matzerath without the charm, Hannibal Lecter without the empathy, Walter White without the humility. Born hunched he suffers dysentery, chicken pox, cholera, a twenty-foot fall, scalding, malnutrition, syphilitic smallpox (signposted by febrile ulcers and complicated by festering measles) and anthrax. His methods with live puppies and dead humans are rather unpleasant, but they serve his purpose. And that purpose? Firstly to hunt and store odours, then “olfactory world domination” no less.
Grenouille reflects on memory, restlessness, progress, meditation, animism, alchemy, ambition, narcissism and karma, These, the Enlightenment, science and fads are all pilloried when Grenouille meets the hilarious Marquis de la Tallaide-Espinasse and his theory of fluidum letale
Grenouille spends seven years in a cave, engaging in dissolute exercises of the mind and scent-memory before emerging to murder. Is he mad? Is he responsible? Only insofar as a Rumpelstiltskin or Bluebeard are mad, are responsible. “Grenouille sat at his ease on his bench in the cathedral of Saint-Pierre and smiled. His mood was not euphoric as he formed his plans to rule mankind. There were no mad flashings of the eye, no lunatic grimace passed over his face. He was not out of his mind, which was so clear and buoyant that he asked himself why he wanted to do it at all. And he said to himself that he wanted to do it because he was evil, thoroughly evil, And he smiled as he said it and was content. He looked quite innocent, like any happy person…It was not even genuine frankincense fuming out of those thuribles. A bad substitute adulterated with linden and cinnamon dust and saltpetre. God stank. God was a poor little stinker. He had been swindled, this God had, or was Himself a swindler, no different from Grenouille – only a considerably worse one”
My one complaint about this otherwise worthy and engaging book is this…
“She was indeed a girl of exquisite beauty, She was one of those languid women made of dark honey, smooth and sweet and terribly sticky, who take control of a room with a syrupy gesture, a toss of the hair, a single slow whiplash of the eyes – and all the while remain as still as the centre of a hurricane, apparently unaware of the force of gravity by which they irresistibly attract to themselves the yearnings and the souls of both men and women.. And she was young, so very young, that the flow of her allure had not yet grown viscous. Her full limbs were still smooth and solid, her breasts…etc.”....etc…and on..,and on
Really? Pure young maiden as the most desirable, ineffable, ludicrously beautiful thing in the world? Yawn, grrr, grr.
That’s the noisome fly in this otherwise delightful pomade.