Picks and Pans Review: Perfume

updated 10/20/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/20/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Patrick Süskind

Here is this fall's most original and astonishing novel. It begins in the 1730s in France. Grenouille is a man who has no body odor of his own but who is extremely sensitive to all smells. He finds Paris to be a city of hideous, unrelenting stenches: "There was hardly a corner of Paris that was not paralyzed with people, not a stone, not a patch of earth that did not reek of humans." His mother, a fishmonger, is executed shortly after his birth, and his superstitious wet nurse fears his lack of odor. The woman who eventually takes care of him does so only for the money it brings. Then one day Grenouille is overcome by the compelling odor of a sweet young virgin, and he kills her so he can savor every part of her. Her scent is one that he will never forget. He .is apprenticed to a tanner, then gets himself hired by a perfumer and becomes the greatest perfume creator in the world. Finally he leaves Paris in disgust and for seven years lives in a cave on a lonely volcanic mountain. When he comes back to civilization, it is to Grasse where flowers are grown and their scents distilled for perfume makers all over the world. Grenouille discovers another virgin with the sweetest odor in the world, and he sets about learning how to distill this most precious, most powerful fragrance of all. Reading this novel is like being submerged in a dark pool of the senses. The description of an infant's odors is beautifully true, even enchanting. Other passages in the book—a description of cannibalism, for example—are disgusting. The range is that of grand opera, and yet the story spins along like an ancient tale out of the Arabian Nights with both suspense and horror growing steadily. Nevertheless no reader will be prepared for the shocking climax. Perfume is a tour de force of the imagination, a spell-weaving experience—but only for readers who can handle strong stuff. It is a first novel, originally written in German by the Bavarian-born Süskind, 37. (Knopf, $16.95)

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