Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfurme, set in late eighteenth century France and subtitled ‘The Story of a Murderer’, tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, born into poverty on the streets of Paris, but with a superhuman sense of smell (although he himself emits no onour), a gift that enables him to detect and identify even the faintest of smells and to distinguish it apart from all others. Not only is he like a human bloodhound, but he also has the nasal equivalent of a photographic memory, able to archive away a smell into his memory for future retrieval. Once he catches the scent of something, he will never forget it. Naturally enough, perhaps, he grows up to become a parfumier.
His pursuit of the ultimate scent, that of an innocent young woman, leads him to becoming a mass murderer as he embalms the corpses to capture the scent in a perfume. It is both his downfall (he is finally captured and sentenced to death) and his saviour. I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t read the book, but it is quite extraordinary and hilarious. He is, of course, a monster, but he is also a victim with the greatest sensitivity. The story evokes Jekyll and Hyde and Frankenstein, or perhaps (bearing in mind that Suskind is German) the work of the German Romantics of the early nineteenth century – Hoffmann and Eichendorff in particular. Its episodic structure and its main concerns are the same – a modern novel of the romantic period.