The 51 chapters of the novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1985) are unorthodox in that, while they are of varying lengths, most of them are very short. Some of these small divisions are under two pages long. This unusual arrangement creates an episodic feel for the story of Grenouille, and it distances the reader from the protagonist in a way that longer divisions would not. This is just as well for so repulsive a main character. Sympathy for Grenouille (except for his childhood) would be difficult to elicit in the reader, so the numerous divisions enhance this lack of sympathy and make one's feeling of horror at the unnatural personality of Grenouille more extreme.
This novel has been cited as one of the most-read German novels since Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks. It certainly has had great popular appeal beyond the literary intelligentsia (Adams, "Das Parfüm"), having been translated into twenty-five languages and selling millions of copies. A film version was released in 2006, and the lyrics to "Scentless Apprentice," written by Kurt Cobain for his band Nirvana, were derived from the story.
Perfume has been both criticized and lauded for its extreme intertextuality, which can be recognized by educated readers. It builds on and draws attention to the characteristic style of so many other authors (in other languages besides English) that it has been thought both highly original and a kind of plagiarism. Recognition of the full resonances of the book, however, is not required for a reasonable level of enjoyment and understanding. The degree of satire perceived (and ability to critique) will vary with the reader, but a large part of the novel's popularity comes from the fact that the references need not be understood within the larger context of the narrative. It is thus a masterful work written on many levels.
During the time when Grenouille lives--the mid-18th century--France is in the beginning stages of what is called the Bourgeois Liberal Revolution (Guerard 151). The old feudal chaos had been put into some kind of organization, and while the aristocrats still had great power and prestige they were not the primary controllers of government. Nor was the king, who still ruled "by divine right"--nor the church, nor the magistracies. The bourgeoisie (the middle class, mostly consisting of merchants and artisans) had made so much money during the first half of the century that they were now in a position to dictate much of the government's policy, especially those policies which governed daily life and trade. There was also significant social fluidity during this time--the old castes were more porous--so particularly successful bourgeois, for instance, were able to buy or be granted titles. It is important to note that it was easier to be upwardly mobile in Grenouille's time than it would be a generation later. Nearer to the French Revolution there was a reactionary movement, (Guerard 153), and Grenouille's rise from foundling to journeyman parfumier would have been far more difficult in those later years.
The degree of realism, too, varies greatly in the novel, with entirely believable and almost painfully realistic episodes (such as the sad story of Grenouille's childhood) juxtaposed with fanciful impossibilities, such as Grenouille's supernatural sense of smell. That the gritty realism is put next to seemingly silly fancies serves several purposes, most of all giving the story a framework of reality which makes the reader less distracted from the fantasy narrative. Since a person like Grenouille could exist with a heightened (though perhaps not as heightened as described) sense of smell, the premise of the story has enough reality to anchor it for the reader, while making the extremities of fantasy a flourish and even a metaphor rather than integral to the plot. That such things as in this story could happen, overall, is certain. An abused and friendless orphan coud easily become a depraved fetishist and murderer, especially during a time in 18th-century France when law enforcement was underdeveloped. That such a murderer would have a sense of smell more acute than any bloodhound is not absolutely necessary to the progression of the plot, however. Thus the characteristic becomes something of a metaphor: the reduction of the human being to a function of their odors is perhaps a metaphor for the dehumanization of the unwanted orphan Grenouille.
The fantasy only overtakes the plot at the very end, when Grenouille is set free for his crimes and then eaten by a mob. While the scene is possible, the likelihood of such a thing is low--and even lower than that of a man like Grenouille killing girls only for their scents. When nearly impossible things happen, the author makes no excuse. After all, this is a cross-genre novel where both historical realism and fantasy are represented.
When Grenouille comes to understand that he is scentless and then realizes that this is what separates him from the rest of mankind, the central conflict of the novel is introduced. This, too, can serve both as the motivation for the plot and as an entry point into the nature of humanity. The world of scent, thought to be quite closed to human beings in comparison to many other animals, governs our actions more than we might suppose, posits Süskind. This idea provides, for many readers, an entirely new intellectual inquiry into one's public persona. It leads one to ask, "Does my own scent, consciously or unconsciously perceived by others, govern how people act toward me? Is my scent unique?" In the world of Grenouille smell certainly affects others, for he is able to elicit the most extreme reactions from people just based on the scents he creates.
This novel thus can also reveal or explain something of the irrationality of human behavior. To the extent that we believe we make most of our decisions about others using reason and conscious choice, the existence of prejudices based on smells perceived unconsciously throws this view into chaos. This kind of foundation-shaking existentialism is a powerful feature of Süskind's work.