Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Perfume - The Wrap Up

"Jupiter and Antiope", a painting featured on many editions of Perfume.
I have been putting off writing this review for a couple of weeks now, so it's probably time I got my shit together and wrote something because I need to read a new book, dammit. The problem I have with this wrap up is that Perfume: The Story of a Murderer left me with so many conflicting and convoluted responses that I didn't really have an angle to use when the time came to write about it. In an attempt to resolve that problem, I have broken this review up into a number of pieces so that it's not just a massive mess of noise. (Hopefully.)

Be warned: this is a long post, and contains some spoilers.

So, did you like it?

Yes, I did. I didn't love it, like some said I would, and it certainly wasn't particularly life-changing. It was an enjoyable read, but it didn't really change my worldview, or resonate particularly powerfully, or fill me with literature-lust about how beautiful it was. It was good, really good in fact, but when I finished it, I didn't really feel anything. It felt like a clinical exercise, but one that wasn't a drag.

The Perfumer

That said, I think that was the reason why the book was so good: it reflected its protagonist perfectly. It was significantly lacking in passion and so incredibly objective in its dealing with the tale and its lead that even though I felt no empathy for any of the characters that passed through its pages, I still found them quite fascinating. I'm not comfortable falling into ethnic stereotypes, but I wasn't at all surprised when I discovered that Patrick Süskind is German; the clean, flat emotional landscape meant that was the obvious guess.

But let's get straight to the core of the character that is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, because he is quite the puzzle for me, and had a massive influence on how I viewed every other character in the book.

I really didn't know how to feel about him, in part because he's an emotionless murderer who had a pretty rough life (does one blame the man or his environment?), but also because I couldn't help getting the impression that whatever I thought of him didn't matter. He was so cold towards every person he met, with no regard for their opinion of him unless it would serve his ultimate purpose. From his point of view, there were no people in the world; just resources to be exploited.

This intensely critical world-view made Grenouille nearly impossible to connect with, let alone empathise with, but that is where the marvel of the rest of the character field comes in.

Where are all the women?

Before we go any further, if you are intending to apply to Bechdel Test to this book, I'm going to straight up tell you that it fails spectacularly. The number of female characters given dialogue can be counted on one hand, and they're are all dead or discarded by the time Grenouille reaches the age of 14.

This isn't really overly concerning when you consider the historical setting of the novel, but it does pose some problems in terms of robbing the murder victims of a voice, and how that reflects even in cases currently in the courts. I'm not going to give a lecture about how this makes Süskind some kind of misogynist, because it doesn't, but I can't help feeling that moving through this entry without at least mentioning it in passing would be remiss of me.

The Rest of the Cast

So there isn't much of a voice for the few women in this story, but that seems to be a deliberate act on the part of the author, in part to force us to find some way to connect to the tale of Grenouille without casting him as a complete villain. This conclusion can be drawn by the fact that the handful of characters characters that do get some degree of development are all revealed to be incredibly flawed, mostly through selfishness, vanity and a cut-throat attitude to life that actually makes Grenouille look meek and simply unfortunate in comparison. Suddenly, through some incredible psychological magic, it's easy to feel like he has been wronged all these years, and the universe is on his side and those that have suffered for knowing this olfactory-obsessed creature of a man may have completely deserved what was coming to them.

The list of horrid people that are encountered in this story is a long one, and their faults are just as varied. There's Grenouille's mother, who is guillotined for neglecting her (mostly still-born) children, of which the protagonist is the only survivor. The tanner who takes him into his business is a cruel, money-hungry fool who more than deserves his fate. Baldini, the master perfumer from whom Gronouille learns his trade, is interested only in his own fortune and status, only keeping his apprentice alive in order to secure his own future. Antoine Richis, the governor of the town and father of the last victim really only cares for his daughter because he sees her as a way to marry into land, title and money, and who would have taken her as his own lover had it not been an action that would ruin his own prospects.

Seriously, nobody that you actually get the chance to know in any detail in this book is likeable. What Süskind has done is make Grenouille, a manipulative, scheming, opportunistic murderer, into the best of a bad bunch. It seemed impossible, but somehow he manages it.

Unfortunately, as I noted in the previous section, this means that a number of good-hearted characters don't get the focus and praise they almost certainly deserve. Even those without any sort of blame, but also lacking in positive characteristics, have their personalities completely cut from the tale.

Normally, I would have argued that this lack of character depth is a bad thing, but it truly does propel the story forward. There is no room for co-stars in this piece - it is all about Grenouille. By refusing to let us dwell on those left in his wake, Süskind stops the tale from getting bogged down in morality by focusing on the facts of the case, proving that he is a storyteller who gets shit done. When your tale is as gruesome as this one, that is an incredibly important thing to be able to do.

The Story of a Murderer

So, by now we've established that Perfume is a grand, yet succinct narrative that manages to be thorough in its recount of events, while also keeping the focus exactly where it's required. While it could be a particularly difficult read, the short chapters and refusal to mess around with unneeded detail kept me intrigued all the way through.

But there is one thing that really stood out about this piece that contrasted with a lot of other murder fiction that I've read over the years: the sheer scope of the biography.

Most of the murder stories I have consumed have glossed over the pretext of the crimes committed, but in this tale, the focus was not on the murders at all, but on the man who committed them. This is not a story of a murderer; this is the story of a man who just happens to kill people in order to achieve what he wants to do in life. It is hard to pin him as a killer of young women, because he doesn't see them as such, and therefore the lives he takes end up as little more than a footnote to the greater scheme of his actions.

It all comes back to this impersonal feel that runs right through the book, reminding the reader that none of us really have any worth outside that designated by those with power over us. It's a horrible thought, especially in the modern day where self-esteem is lauded as the main goal of life, but what does it matter if we don't hold the esteem of others?

A Wrap of a Wrap - "TL;DR"

It wasn't a quick read, nor was it an easy read, but it was certainly interesting. Part of me wants to say it was entertaining, but Perfume isn't really ever about entertaining the reader as much as it is about making them uncomfortable and challenging their views of right and wrong. I would certainly recommend it, but only to a certain type of person.

Perfume is certainly a journey, and an incredible one at that.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on Perfume in the comments below. x N