Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind

This novel with its olfactory theme started off hitting us with detailed descriptions of the stench of the city, the river and of the people. Everybody stank, from the aristocracy to the beggars. Amidst this stench, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was born to a fishmonger as she was in the middle of gutting fish. Instead of being able to have her newborn carted away with the pile of fish guts, the mother fainted in public view and was hanged for infanticide of her other “stillborns” after confession. An unloved and unwanted child from birth, Grenouille was cursed with no smell, although he has a supernatural ability to detect scent. Reviled by others, he was a “tic” who took too much from the wet nurses. He was rejected by his wet nurse because of his lack of smell, scared the Father of the church by smelling him, and apprenticed to a tannery with poor working conditions where he almost died. With his extraordinary olfactory sense, Grenouille set out to find his mission in life by becoming a perfumer. He ingratiated himself to a talentless perfumer who can only follow the rules of making perfume. Soon, he became the perfumer’s Cyrano, creating popular scents, giving credit to the old perfumer and making him wealthy. Although the perfumer was taking advantage of his talent, Grenouille has a goal that has nothing to do with making money.

Following some sort of a purpose, he left the perfumer, but spent years in a cave to get away from the stench of humanity. He returned to humanity when he realized that he has no body scent. Although he wore the same clothing for 7 years living in the cave, his clothing contained none of his body scent. The shock of realizing that is what caused him to be rejected and unloved by society, he returns where he is taken in by the Marquis who made him civilized. To fit in with others, he used his perfumery skill to create a smell for himself out of cat shit, cheese and vinegar, the smell that helps him blend in with his fellow man. But it is not enough that he no longer stands out because of his lack of smell.

One day, Grenouille sniffed a most wonderful smell, a smell that brings out the pleasant feeling of beauty. This defined his purpose in life. The tic then steals the scent of its host. He murdered the young girl he scented in order to capture her essence. Later, he detected a young girl with the most intoxicating smell, a smell that brings out a feeling of love, lust and devotion. She is two years before the full bloom of her scent. Grenouille at last found his true calling, to create the best perfume in the world. He wants to create a perfume that brings out a strong feeling of love and devotion. Having been unloved all of his life, he wants to use that perfume to control people with their overpowering feeling of love and desire. While waiting for the girl to mature, he went on a killing spree of virgins to use their scents as under notes for his greatest find when she matures.

This masterful and original plot is executed in a fast and dramatic pace, with a balance of death and decay, and love and lust, all expressed through stench and bouquet.

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11.22.63 by Stephen King

Jake Epping couldn’t cry. His wife left him because of his “nonexistent emotional gradient.” He didn’t cry at his father-in-law’s funeral, not even at his parents’ funerals. But he cried when his collie, Rags, was killed because he felt responsible for the dog’s death, and when he received the news of his mother’s sudden death. He cried when he read a paper written by a disabled student in his adult education class, Hoptoad Harry. With this introduction, Stephen King in his latest novel, 11/22/63, set the emotional mood in this novel filled with sentimentality and reflection surrounding the pivotal event of John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas.

This introspective novel started with the musing of the precariousness of fate. “Life turns on a dime.” The plot began with Jake reading Harry’s paper, “The Day That Changed My Life.” In one fateful night, Harry, born a normal, happy child, became a cripple whose best achievement is being able to maintain his janitorial job at the high school. Harry’s poignant account of the night his father murdered his family and crippled him brought “real tears, the kind that come from deep inside” out of Jake. Changing Harry’s circumstance formed the initial motivation for Jake when Al, of Al’s diner, bequeathed the time portal in his pantry to him. This time portal took him to the exact same time in1958 each time. Each trip to 1958 is a reset. Al had made frequent trips to buy cheap hamburgers for the diner. But the trip to get hamburgers turned into missions. It started with the urge to change the life of a woman Al had a crush on, then included the attempt to prevent John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Unsuccessful in his attempt and dying of cancer, Al chose Jake as the best replacement for the job to save JFK.

Throughout this lengthy novel, questions were raised about the morality and impact of disturbing the events of history, hinging on the chaos theory of the butterfly effect. In the butterfly effect, a small initial condition can snowball into a huge event, as in the fluttering of a butterfly’s wing causing atmospheric change, thereby producing a tornado elsewhere. However, this is not a science fiction novel, but a novel about treasuring and living with what you have, and making the best of what fate has given you, even if at any moment fate can change on a dime. It is also about the realization that all our lives are tenuous and changeable, “Who can know when life hangs in the balance, or why?” Perhaps King’s latest novel was brought about by his reflection on his own life, his near poverty as a low-salaried teacher and unknown author, to his fame and wealth as a highly successful author, screen writer and director, to his near-fatal accident. The dime turned often in his life.

This enjoyable book was filled with vivid and sentimental description as Jake, now as George T. Amberson, left the pantry into a world where everything tastes good and natural, and people are polite and reserved. But it is also a world where the politeness masks a deep racism and hatred of anything that is different. George was torn between loving the homey, innocent feel that is rare in the 21st century, and hating the underlying ostracizing of society’s fringe groups. Most of this thick book was not focused on the assassination, but George’s loving interaction with the people in the town of Jodi and a love affair with a librarian, while he awaits for Oswalt’s movement. This is where King is at his best, as each of his characters come alive. They can be your neighbor down the street with real, human dialogues. Mixed in with interactions that warms the heart and creates tears of sadness, is the foreshadowing that made King such a master of horror. We are given ominous warnings of possible terrible things to come from George messing with time, with cautions about the butterfly effect, that the past is obdurate and will do whatever it will to prevent change, even horrible things. Harmonic echoes abound as obvious similarities are repeated in people and places George encounters, each echoing becoming higher in pitch, much as the air disturbance caused by the fluttering of a butterfly’s wing evolving into a tornado, as the music from the harmonic echoes reaches an ear-piercing pitch.

With his skillful approach to storytelling full of realistic human interaction, his usual way of making each interaction full of emotions, whether it be anger, fear or tears, his ability to foreshadow so that the little flutterings end in a stormy climax, and his vivid detailing, King made 11/23/63 an entertaining, solid read that does not disappoint. Get yourself a nice cup of tea. You might not want to put the book down until you’re done. Well, you might want to pause and flutter your arms a bit to see whether you can cause a tornado in Thailand.