When I became aware of this book’s subject matter being the serial murder of young virgins written by a man I would have preferred to read a copy of Hello Magazine : the Sarah Palin Edition. However, a few people said it was very good and much better than the film (which I also avoided) so since I have dabbled in aromatherapy, l decided to have a tentative sniff inside this book. I had to have a rest in the middle, but by the end, I was inhaling deeply.
The setting is 18th Century Paris, evoked so vividly by the description of its many strong and mostly unpleasant odours. Bacteria could multiply with impunity here in this densely populated area as antiseptics had not been invented and so the resulting smells were bad. Men are urinous and cheesy, women smell of fish and rancid fat, people’s mouths smell of rotting teeth and appalling stenches come from the river. Thus, the art of the perfumier was highly valued as the privileged could better disguise their foul body odours.
Smells have the power to evoke strong memories and I was transported back to Paris in the early seventies where I had gone on a pilgrimage with two friends to the hallowed streets of May ’68. We got the ferry to Calais, stuck our thumbs out and were picked up by a Chilean doctor and his family and taken to a camp site a few miles away as it was getting late. The only other lift offered was by an extremely sinister looking farmer in a beret who stopped his rusting corrugated Citroen van and gestured malevolently to the back. We were not entirely stupid – we had seen the chilling film about the 2 English girls on a cycling holiday, one of whom disappears from the eerie, tree-lined French roads and winds up raped and strangulated in a farmer’s caravan, so we declined.
The doctor visited us later in our skill-lessly erected tent and talked with us about his support for the newly elected President Allende, philosophy and opera. Showing real interest in our hopes and beliefs, we 17 year olds were instantly infatuated with this man who, for us, was a hero of the new Socialist regime in Chile. He said Jane was the rebellious one, I was the romantic one and Helen was the sensible one – I would have preferred the description of a rebel but at least I wasn’t the sensible one! I worry about what happened to this man in the subsequent Pinochet coup. Now I can’t help but wonder if his wife minded being left in their tent with the kids but that thought destroys the poignant memory. The next morning we got a lift with an English family who dropped us off in the centre of Paris and as I stepped out of their camper van, the smell of Paris – street urinals, gauloise and perfume – was overwhelming.
How I digress – so back to the book. Into 18th century Paris the main character, Grenouille is born in the most inauspicious circumstances imaginable. His mother is gutting fish and she squats down under the table and the unwanted infant slithers onto the pile of fish guts as she cuts the cord with her gutting knife. She hopes that as with her previous 4 unwanted babies, Grenouille will be washed away into the Seine with all the other debris but his cries are heard and he is saved from that particular fate. This is the start of this novel and I was utterly repelled but grimly fascinated by this base misanthropy.
Grenouille is given to various wet nurses who reject him as he does not smell as babies should smell, described by one as like caramel – indeed, he has no bodily smell at all. He is eventually fostered by a woman with no sense of smell who looks after her charges efficiently, but with no feeling. Grenouille grows up rejected by all and he has no expectation of love or human contact and clings to life stubbornly ‘like a little tick.’ Although he has no smell himself, Grenouille was born with a supernaturally keen sense of smell.
He is taken on as a journeyman in a perfume house on a bridge over the Seine and with his olfactory abilities, he confects incredible perfumes and rescues the ailing business. This shop is wonderfully described from its entrance with a silver heron spewing violet-scented cologne into a gold bowl to the myriad pungent smelling substances inside. As well as essential oils, colognes and pomades, there is lover’s ink infused with otto of roses, lavender-scented leather gloves and deeply impregnated wallpaper that would scent a room for a hundred years. It is a cacophany of aromas compared to a huge orchestra with each instrument played fortissimo. One day he is walking in an unfamiliar part of the city where he picks up a faint smell of a young girl and he is intoxicated and becomes obsessed by the notion of possessing this delicious scent.
The story continues with Grenouille leaving Paris and living for a number of years in a cave, miles from other human habitation in the Auvergne. From there he journeys to Toulouse and eventually to Grasse, the mecca of the perfume industry where he gains another position as a perfumier. Grenouille is still obsessed with collecting the sweet smell of young virgins and he learns all the methods of extracting scent – the essence or soul. I was interested in the descriptions of distillation, maceration and enfleurage of substances; the thousands of beautiful jonquil blooms needed to produce a small phial of their essence. He has found the perfect method of similarly extracting the scent of young women but unfortunately, it requires them to be killed by a swift unexpected blow to the back of the head as a smell of fear will taint their lovely scent. He is eventually caught and there is a very weird ending that I can make no sense of.
Perfume is vividly written and will be accessible to readers without a queasy disposition so long as they are prepared to run with the allegorical possibilities. We have good smells, bad smells and no smell but what does a smell signify? I came across one review that saw in this book an allegory of the Third Reich but I cannot sustain my thought processes into such a coherent allegory – something doesn’t always fit. I would love our group to read this book as I feel it would provoke some controversy.