Patrick Suskind, Perfume

A few years ago, a good friend raved to me, more than once, about Patrick Suskind's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. One especially memorable rave was delivered at a 40th birthday party we both attended for a mutual friend, and to my good fortune, I found a copy not long afterward on the shelves of the Hornby Island Free Store (link only tangentially relevant). It's taken me over a year to get to it, but I needed a break from marking, and Perfume was one of the few unread volumes on my compressed home bookshelf, so I was happy finally to make the chance.

I have to say, first, that I enjoy Law & Order: SVU, Criminal Minds (recently called "execrable" in the illustrious Victoria Times-Colonist), and many of the other "investigate the perv" TV shows. It's not that I don't mind them; I actively enjoy them. I dislike similar movies, because the shots of the perv's actions are too often troublingly lingering, as if the camera's delighting in the actions, but I'm OK with TV's slightly greater distance. I say this to insist that my lack of warmth for the book isn't due to the nature of the murders themselves, or of the murderer. In fact, I thought that the murderer's psyche was deeply believable, and that the rationale for the murders (and the particular methods he used) was immaculately justified within the fiction. My response isn't a moral problem, in other words, as it is for some other reviewers.

Mind you, I'm perfectly comfortable with the fact that other people like the book a lot, like Raven over at Carmina Corvae (who I found through Google's Blogsearch function) or Marky C at Frock You (ditto).

I'm OK with their pleasure because for me, the novel starts off staggeringly well. The descriptions of 18th-century cities, which would have smelt vile beyond imagining, are excellent, and the characters are graphically realized and genuinely interesting. Suskind uses the standard machinery of magical realism to excellent effect (unexplained appearances and disappearances, catalogues of diverse objects, sensuality, etc), and I was impressed by his achievement in applying that stereotypically Latin American mode to a European setting.

The thing is, though, Perfume is a plot-driven story. And in my opinion, the plot goes off the rails badly. The scene of the hanging was ... beyond absurd, and for me, the book dragged itself brokenly from that point on to what felt like a failed conclusion. I know, I know, there's enough magical realism in the book that presumably I should read the closing twenty pages as a slanted allegory: maybe as a lesson in how magical realism is inadequate for a world of violence, I don't know (and notwithstanding Gabriel Garcia Marquez's achievement in precisely this use of magical realism in The Autumn of the Patriarch).

You should take your friend's advice to read this book, because s/he's absolutely right that it's a riveting novel. But don't blame me when, thirty pages from the end, you start snorting, "What the hell...?!?" or "Oh, come on!"


Zachariah Wells said…
I agree with your assessment. A far more successful book is Suskind's novella, _The Pigeon_.
richard said…
Phew, I'm glad not to have disappointed you ;-)

My sense is that Suskind is a very skilled writer, so I'll cheerfully add The Pigeon to my reading list. Funny, though, what books become cult faves.
Anonymous said…
yours was the review I found that was nearest to my own opinion. I've linked to your review from my own which you can find HERE

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