20th century Literature, Book review, Patrick Suskind, Perfume

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind

This blog was originally going to be about that small sub-set of books that I found offensive, but re-reading parts of this particular novel reminded me just how objectionable I found it, and how puzzled I was that I seemed to be the only person who has a problem with it.

Google any combination of the words “Perfume” “Suskind” and “misogyny” or “feminism” and you won’t find anything. And yet I am genuinely puzzled that feminists did not feel outraged by this novel. So what is my problem?

Let’s start with the Wikipedia entry for it, which says  
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a 1985 literary historical cross-genre novel (originally published in German as Das Parfum) by German writer Patrick Süskind. The novel explores the sense of smell and its relationship with the emotional meaning that scents may carry. Above all it is a story of identity, communication and the morality of the human spirit.”

So a story of a murderer – the clue is in the title – isn’t about a lunatic murdering virgins and abusing their bodies to distill scent from them, but is about nice, fluffy things like identity, communication, and the human spirit. Is it really?

Imagine an advertisement for a film. It promises to feature the casual murder of 20 virgins – and the emphasis of their sexual status is Suskind’s, not mine – followed by an orgy and scenes of cannibalism. The bodies of the murder victims are abused by the murderer in some fetishistic way to distill “perfume”. What kind of film would you expect – an exploitative torture porn video nasty, or something literary and sophisticated.

I appreciate the case for the defence will be that I shouldn’t take this too literally – despite Suskind’s determined focus on making each scene as real as possible by his focus on the senses throughout the novel – and that this is magical realism, where the brutal slaughter of young women is a metaphor for…. – what exactly? This case is laid out, for example, in the dozens of laudatory reviews on Amazon, for example this one:

“I came to this book expecting to find a crime novel, or a thriller, about a serial killer. Instead I found a beautifully written and deeply researched novel about a young Frenchman with an unusual sense of smell and a unique gift for the art of the perfumier. In fact, the murders of young girls, so emphasised in the film, take second place to the marvellous descriptions of how perfume is made, and the way in which Grenouille gradually infiltrates the profession, becoming a master perfumier due to his prodigious gifts

The murders of girls takes second place to the descriptions of how perfume is made? Really? I don’t give a stuff about the technical detail as to how perfume is made, but I am pretty sure it doesn’t involve murdering virgins. grenouille may have been a skilled perfumier, and I am sure Hitler could whip up a nice cheese omelette, but talk about missing the point.

To be as clear as possible, it is not the literary treatment of murder that I find objectionable – that would preclude me from appreciating large sections of world literature, including Shakespeare (Titus Andronicus, anyone?). Murder can be used to shock, to amuse, or to make any other number of points. It can even be handled in a way that is hard to stomach (for example, American Psycho). But the idea that women’s bodies contain within them an essence that can be found as long as you kill enough of them, and that this is some way legitimises their killing, I found nauseating.

I am aware I have not made the case for the prosecution compellingly here – it is hard to define the offensive, even when it is staring you in the face. Equally I accept no-one else seems to have a problem with this novel and its treatment of women. But I found it nasty, brutal, and disturbing. If that was Suskind’s intention, fine, but why is everyone else pretending this is a high minded dissertation on identity and the like?