Tuesday, August 19, 2008


by Patrick Süskind

I read this book on a recent visit to the metropolis of London where it was quite something to become alerted on how things smell. However, I would have preferred the fragrance of the summer meadows of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall where I was prior to my stay in the capital.

Parisian city dwellers of today would with all certainty receive an olfactory shock if returned to the city of the protagonist in Patrick Süskind's story, Jean-Babtiste Grenoille. 17th century Paris stank of manure, sulphur, coagulated blood, mouldering wood and rats and rotten teeth. Foul odours did not only emanate from the industries, but from each and everyone came a foetor. Into that world Jean-Babtiste was born, and as an orphan he was sold to a tanner. This young boy had an extraordinary sense of smell and on top of that he recognised, distinguished and could discriminate the different flavours of all aromas. In his early life he spent all his free time memorising the scent of everything and he did it so rigidly accurate that he favoured his mental map of smells rather than his sight. Because of this he often chose to walk blindly, with his eyes shut. Grenoille escaped the stench of humans and lived, or rather lied in lethargy, many years in a cave as far away from man-made settlements as possible, unaware and uninterested of the riots, revolutions and wars on the outside. In his cold sweaty nightmare he suddenly realises that he himself is without a human smell, and that he always has been. With this realisation he starts to understand the behaviour of others towards him, but also how he can use it together with his skills in composing the perfect scent and either being loved or at least have his retribution. He leaves his cave and the story of the murderer of virgins can begin.

While writing this, the black dog in my household sits with her big resonance box of a nose outside the window, peering over the market beneath. Amongst men, only Jean-Babtiste Grenoille would have understood.