Some of my friends raved about this book in the late 80s and 90s. When I scanned through the reviews of it on Goodreads, I found that most of them also rave about it. It’s a book I wish I hadn’t read. It won’t be added to my store of literary treasures. It is a story of an abominable man, born without a smell of his own and gifted with a super-human sense of smell. The first quality makes him less than human, ignored, abandoned as a baby, growing up by his own cunning and will to survive, without loving or being loved. The second quality makes him more than human, for he is gifted with the ability, honed over many years, to capture and recreate the essences of things and people. He uses this ability to disguise himself when convenient, and to pursue his lust for capturing essential fragrances, especially of young, beautiful, virginal girls. This ability pits him against the mass of humanity, in a time (the eighteenth century) when stenches reign the cities, and underlying them all is the stench of death and decay. This is an entropic world, where all things and all beings lust for life but the inevitable end for all is death and decay. The anti-hero, Grenouille, achieves his greatest desire, to be worshipped for his self-creation as a divinely perfumed being. This after a chain of murders of beautiful virgins. His triumph is hollow, because he cannot enjoy his transformation. His disgust for humankind means that he lacks the ability to love, and can only hate those who believe they love him.
The writer asks a lot of his readers. We are subjected to page after page of detailed descriptions, of smells, of the process of extracting smells, of Grenouille’s thought processes and actions in perpetrating his fantasies of transformation. What is left, when he is finally destroyed by a group orgy of cannibalism (no apology for spoiler here), is the grotesque proposition that the act of dismemberment and consumption is an act of Love. In effect, any moral that this story carries is destroyed by this ending. Even Love is corrupted by desire for possession and incorporation of what is essentially (no pun intended) a false, corrupt, evil beauty.