Perfume, by Patrick Süskind (Translated by John E. Woods)

If no one asks me about it, then I know what it is; but if someone asks me about it and I try to explain it to him, then I do not know what it is. ~ St. Augustine, quoted by Patrick Süskind in On Love and Death

A quote intended to describe time, but aptly adapted to portray love.

At first glance the unnerving, strange, and utterly alien novel comes across as a grotesque, twisted erotic tale of murder. The cold, detached and sometimes desolately scientific tone of the translated tome radiates a certain loathing of humanity and a nonchalant treatment of death.

However, this book speaks of love.

That was the pervasive theme that struck me out of the interwoven resonances of death, humanity, olfactory reliances, and the darkly black humor dotted with notes of tragedy (the hubris of the characters Grenouille chances across all lead to a certain nemesis- Mrs. Wood will be proud.)

What is love?

Süskind transforms the typically heartfelt and distinctly human emotion into something almost unrecognizable in an entirely unorthodox take on the concept of love. In his world, the emotion of love (or of anything, for that matter) is driven by the world of scent. Love is hard to grasp – but for Grenouille and Süskind’s world, love is evoked by the perfect scent.

Because I knew that I desired the scent, not the girl. But those people believed that they desired me, and what they really desired remained a mystery to them.

And at the climax of the book (which is arguably the very end; really, there is no denouement), when acts of cannibalism are committed and seemingly bizarre and atrocious deeds (driven by the scent of his perfume) are done:

They were uncommonly proud. For once they had done something our of Love.

Perhaps the real ingenuity that lies in this masterpiece is its nauseatingly repulsive, yet morbidly alluring nature. All at once grotesque and beautiful; twisted with perversion and yet possessive of a certain clarity; wildly out-of-the-world and yet shudderingly relatable. This doesn’t simply lie in the bizarre and unconventional plot; the manner in which it is written is critical towards its overall feel. We have to remind ourselves that Perfume is a translated work; that the cold, callous tone and long, drawn out sentences are a product of John E. Woods’ translation – and perhaps do not fully resonate that of Süskind’s German edition. I do not know if it lies testament to Süskind’s transcendent plot that seems to surpass language barriers – or perhaps exemplifies Woods’ translatory prowess – but whatever the reason, the effect was beyond compare.

Pick up a copy of Perfume. It may leave you unnerved, perturbed, and unable to eat your dinner – but one thing is for sure.

You’ll pick up your book hesitantly and then give it a dubious sniff – for you will swear that for some odd reason, it seems to have no Scent.

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