Thursday, February 5, 2009

Review - Perfume

by Patrick Suskind
1987 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel
Translated by John E. Woods

That was... er... well... very European.

Perfume is the first of these award winning novels that was not written in English and since I do not read German above a level capable of stumbling through board game rules (barely) I resorted to an English translation.

In eighteenth century France a child is born in the middle of rotting fish and corpses who lacks an odor of his own. He defines his world by scents thanks to his supernaturally gifted sense of smell. As the child grows he finds that certain people smell a way that draws others to them and becomes obsessed with replicating that smell himself in a perfume. Unfortunately his unique viewpoint has made him into a sociopath that is more than capable of killing anyone in order to get what he desires.

So what do I mean when I call Perfume "very European"? The story is low key. It's filled with philosophical digressions. It has a certain self-important style that attempts to give the novel a greater weight. Symbolism and imagery are the most important aspects of the book. It reminded me a great deal of those European films that you can only see in tiny art houses with people who equate confusing and slow paced with quality.

Fortunately Perfume doesn't manage to crawl so far up its own navel that the only thing you can find is what you bring with you but it does come close. It's salvation is it's problem: Suskin designs his descriptions in terms of scents and so every smell that crosses the pages must carry its own deep meaning. So on one hand the descriptions are unique and give the book a completely different feel to anything else, on the other the prose hits those over and over again.

To some extent this may be the result of the translation and so I'm hesitent to criticize the prose. It is clumsy in some place but I don't know if it was really the fault of the author.

Another problem with the book is the fact that viewpoint character is an inhuman monster. His actions and reactions are not those of a person. However Suskind does craft him into a character that can be understood much in the way that one can understand the behavior of a predatory insect. There's a fascination involved in watching that does not require any empathy. I have to considder that a success since I'm certain that it was the author's intention but at the same time there are likely to be readers who have no tolerance for it.

When this character is interacting with people the book is at its best. Suskind plays up the differences between his monster and "normal" people which make these sections gripping. Unfortunately for a long section in the middle of the book he moves the character away from any human contact and the story loses much of its momentum. It does pick up again several chapters later but it is a rough speed pump in the story.

I know this seems like a lot of griping but I did when it comes down to the bottom line enjoy Perfume and I do recommend it. I just recogonize that it's a very different book from what most people enjoy. So I have to recommend it with caveats: if you have no problem with slow paced allegory, if you don't need a likable protagonist, if you're interested in a very alternative viewpoint, then you'll be able to read Perfume and enjoy it.