Perfume: The Story of a Murderer - Page 13

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For that night a minor catastrophe occurred, which, with appropriate delays, resulted in a royal decree requiring that little by little all the buildings on all the bridges of Paris be torn down. For with no apparent reason, the west side of the Pont-au-Change, between the third and fourth piers, collapsed. Two buildings were hurtled into the river, so completely and suddenly that none of their occupants could be rescued. Fortunately, it was a matter of only two persons, to wit: Giuseppe Baldini and his wife, Teresa. The servants had gone out, either with or without permission. Chénier, who first returned home in the small hours slightly drunk—or rather, intended to return home, since there was no home left—suffered a nervous breakdown. He had sacrificed thirty long years of his life in hopes of being named heir in Baldini’s will, for the old man had neither children nor relatives. And now, at one blow, the entire inheritance was gone, everything, house, business, raw materials, laboratory, Baldini himself—indeed even the will, which perhaps might have offered him a chance of becoming owner of the factory.

Nothing was found, not the bodies, not the safe, not the little books with their six hundred formulas. Only one thing remained of Giuseppe Baldini, Europe’s greatest perfumer: a very motley odor—of musk, cinnamon, vinegar, lavender, and a thousand other things—that took several weeks to float high above the Seine from Paris to Le Havre.

Part Two


When the House of Giuseppe Baldini collapsed, Grenouille was already on the road to Orléans. He had left the enveloping haze of the city behind him; and with every step he took away from it, the air about him grew clearer, purer, and cleaner. It became thinner as well. Gone was the roiling of hundreds, thousands of changing odors at every pace; instead, the few odors there were—of the sandy road, meadows, the earth, plants, water—extended across the countryside in long currents, swelling slowly, abating slowly, with hardly an abrupt break.

For Grenouille, this simplicity seemed a deliverance. The leisurely odors coaxed his nose. For the first time in his life he did not have to prepare himself to catch the scent of something new, unexpected, hostile—or to lose a pleasant smell—with every breath. For the first time he could almost breathe freely, did not constantly have to be on the olfactory lookout. We say “almost,” for of course nothing ever passed truly freely through Grenouille’s nose. Even when there was not the least reason for it, he was always alert to, always wary of everything that came from outside and had to be let inside. His whole life long, even in those few moments when he had experienced some inkling of satisfaction, contentment, and perhaps even happiness, he had preferred exhaling to inhaling—just as he had begun life not with a hopeful gasp for air but with a bloodcurdling scream. But except for that one proviso, which for him was simply a constitutional limitation, the farther Grenouille got from Paris, the better he felt, the more easily he breathed, the lighter his step, until he even managed sporadically to carry himself erect, so that when seen from a distance he looked almost like an ordinary itinerant journeyman, like a perfectly normal human being.

Most liberating for him was the fact that other people were so far away. More people lived more densely packed in Paris than in any other city in the world. Six, seven hundred thousand people lived in Paris. Its streets and squares teemed with them, and the houses were crammed full of them from cellars to attics. 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.

As he began to withdraw from them, it became clear to Grenouille for the first time that for eighteen years their compacted human effluvium had oppressed him like air heavy with an imminent thunderstorm. Until now he had thought that it was the world in general he wanted to squirm away from. But it was not the world, it was the people in it. You could live, so it seemed, in this world, in this world devoid of humanity.

On the third day of his journey he found himself under the influence of the olfactory gravity of Orléans. Long before any visible sign indicated that he was in the vicinity of a city, Grenouille sensed a condensation of human stuff in the air and, reversing his original plan, decided to avoid Orléans. He did not want to have his newfound respiratory freedom ruined so soon by the sultry climate of humans. He circled the city in a giant arc, came upon the Loire at Châteauneuf, and crossed it at Sully. His sausage lasted that far. He bought himself a new one and, leaving the river behind, pushed on to the interior.

He now avoided not just cities, but villages as well. He was almost intoxicated by air that grew ever more rarefied, ever more devoid of humankind. He would approach a settlement or some isolated farm only to get new supplies, buying his bread and disappearing again into the woods. After a few weeks even those few travelers he met on out-of-the-way paths proved too much for him; he could no longer bear the concentrated odor that appeared punctually with farmers out to mow the first hay on the meadows. He nervously skirted every herd of sheep—not because of the sheep, but to get away from the odor of the shepherds. He headed straight across country and put up with mile-long detours whenever he caught the scent of a troop of riders still several hours distant. Not because, like other itinerant journeymen and vagabonds, he feared being stopped and asked for his papers and then perhaps pressed into military service—he didn’t even know there was a war on—but solely because he was disgusted by the human smell of the horsemen. And so it happened quite naturally and as the result of no particular decision that his plan to take the fastest road to Grasse gradually faded; the plan unraveled in freedom, so to speak, as did all his other plans and intentions. Grenouille no longer wanted to go somewhere, but only to go away, away from human beings.

Finally, he traveled only by night. During the day he crept into thickets, slept under bushes, in underbrush, in the most inaccessible spots, rolled up in a ball like an animal, his earthen-colored horse blanket pulled up over his body and head, his nose wedged in the crook of an elbow so that not the faintest foreign odor could disturb his dreams. He awoke at sunset, sniffed in all directions, and only when he could smell that the last farmer had left his fields and the most daring wanderer had sought shelter from the descending darkness, only when night and its presumed dangers had swept the countryside clean of people, did Grenouille creep out of hiding and set out again on his journey. He did not need light to see by. Even before, when he was traveling by day, he had often closed his eyes for hours on end and merely followed his nose. The gaudy landscape, the dazzling abrupt definition of sight hurt his eyes. He was delighted only by moonlight. Moonlight knew no colors and traced the contours of the terrain only very softly. It covered the land with a dirty gray, strangling life all night long. This world molded in lead, where nothing moved but the wind that fell sometimes like a shadow over the gray forests, and where nothing lived but the scent of the naked earth, was the only world that he accepted, for it was much like the world of his soul.

He headed south. Approximately south—for he did not steer by magnetic compass, but only by the compass of his nose, which sent him skirting every city, every village, every settlement. For weeks he met not a single person. And he might have been able to cradle himself in the soothing belief that he was alone in a world bathed in darkness or the cold light of the moon, had his delicate compass not taught him better.

Humans existed by night as well. And there were humans in the most remote regions. They had only pulled back like rats into their lairs to sleep. The earth was not cleansed of them, for even in sleep they exuded their odor, which then forced its way out between the cracks of their dwellings and into the open air, poisoning a natural world only apparently left to its own devices. The more Grenouille had become accustomed to purer air, the more sensitive he was to human odor, which suddenly, quite unexpectedly, would come floating by in the night, ghastly as the stench of manure, betraying the presence of some shepherd’s hut or charcoal burner’s cottage or thieves’ den. And then he would flee farther, increasingly sensitive to the increasingly infrequent smell of humank

ind. Thus his nose led him to ever more remote regions of the country, ever farther from human beings, driving him on ever more insistently toward the magnetic pole of the greatest possible solitude.


That pole, the point of the kingdom most distant from humankind, was located in the Massif Central of the Auvergne, about five days’ journey south of Clermont, on the peak of a six-thousand-foot-high volcano named Plomb du Cantal.

The mountain consisted of a giant cone of blue-gray rock and was surrounded by an endless, barren highland studded with a few trees charred by fire and overgrown with gray moss and gray brush, out of which here and there brown boulders jutted up like rotten teeth. Even by light of day, the region was so dismal and dreary that the poorest shepherd in this poverty-stricken province would not have driven his animals here. And by night, by the bleaching light of the moon, it was such a godforsaken wilderness that it seemed not of this world. Even Lebrun, the bandit of the Auvergne, though pursued from all sides, had preferred to fight his way through to the Cévennes and there be captured, drawn, and quartered rather than to hide out on the Plomb du Cantal, where certainly no one would have sought or found him, but where likewise he would certainly have died a solitary, living death that had seemed to him worse still. For miles around the mountain, there lived not one human being, nor even a respectable mammal—at best a few bats and a couple of beetles and adders. No one had scaled the peak for decades.

Grenouille reached the mountain one August night in the year 1756. As dawn broke, he was standing on the peak. He did not yet know that his journey was at an end. He thought that this was only a stopping place on the way to ever purer air, and he turned full circle and let his nose move across the vast panorama of the volcanic wilderness: to the east, where the broad high plain of Saint-Flour and the marshes of the Riou River lay; to the north, to the region from which he had come and where he had wandered for days through pitted limestone mountains; to the west, from where the soft wind of morning brought him nothing but the smells of stone and tough grass; finally to the south, where the foothills of the Plomb stretched for miles to the dark gorges of the Truyère. Everywhere, in every direction, humanity lay equally remote from him, and a step in any direction would have meant closer proximity to human beings. The compass spun about. It no longer provided orientation. Grenouille was at his goal. And at the same time he was taken captive.

As the sun rose, he was still standing on the same spot, his nose held up to the air. With a desperate effort he tried to get a whiff of the direction from which threatening humanity came, and of the opposite direction to which he could flee still farther. He assumed that in whatever direction he turned he ought to detect some latent scrap of human odor. But there was nothing. Here there was only peace, olfactory peace, if it can be put that way. Spread all about, as if softly rustling, lay nothing but the drifting, homogeneous odor of dead stones, of gray lichen, and of withered grasses—nothing else.

Grenouille needed a very long time to believe what he was not smelling. He was not prepared for his good luck. His mistrust fought against his good sense for quite a while. He even used his eyes to aid him as the sun rose, and he scanned the horizon for the least sign of human presence, for the roof of a hut, the smoke of a fire, a fence, a bridge, a herd. He held his hands to his ears and listened, for a scythe being whetted, for the bark of a dog or the cry of a child. That whole day he stood fast in the blazing heat on the peak of the Plomb du Cantal and waited in vain for the slightest evidence. Only as the sun set did his mistrust gradually fade before an ever increasing sense of euphoria. He had escaped the abhorrent taint! He was truly completely alone! He was the only human being in the world!

He erupted with thundering jubilation. Like a ship-wrecked sailor ecstatically greeting the sight of an inhabited island after weeks of aimless drifting, Grenouille celebrated his arrival at the mountain of solitude. He shouted for joy. He cast aside his rucksack, blanket, walking stick, and stamped his feet on the ground, threw his arms to the sky, danced in circles, roared his own name to the four winds, clenched his fists, shaking them triumphantly at the great, wide country lying below him and at the setting sun—triumphantly, as if he personally had chased it from the sky. He carried on like a madman until late into the night.


He spent the next few days settling in on the mountain—for he had made up his mind that he would not be leaving this blessed region all that soon. First he sniffed around for water and in a crevasse a little below the top found it running across the rock in a thin film. It was not much, but if he patiently licked at it for an hour, he could quench his daily need for liquids. He also found nourishment in the form of small salamanders and ring snakes; he pinched off their heads, then devoured them whole. He also ate dry lichen and grass and mossberries. Such a diet, although totally unacceptable by bourgeois standards, did not disgust him in the least. In the past weeks and months he had no longer fed himself with food processed by human hands—bread, sausage, cheese—but instead, whenever he felt hungry, had wolfed down anything vaguely edible that had crossed his path. He was anything but a gourmet. He had no use for sensual gratification, unless that gratification consisted of pure, incorporeal odors. He had no use for creature comforts either and would have been quite content to set up camp on bare stone. But he found something better.

Near his watering spot he discovered a natural tunnel leading back into the mountain by many twists and turns, until after a hundred feet or so it came to an end in a rock slide. The back of the tunnel was so narrow that Grenouille’s shoulders touched the rock and so low that he could walk only hunched down. But he could sit, and if he curled up, could even lie down. That completely satisfied his requirements for comfort. For the spot had incalculable advantages: at the end of the tunnel it was pitch-black night even during the day, it was deathly quiet, and the air he breathed was moist, salty, cool. Grenouille could smell at once that no living creature had ever entered the place. As he took possession of it, he was overcome by a sense of something like sacred awe. He carefully spread his horse blanket on the ground as if dressing an altar and lay down on it. He felt blessedly wonderful. He was lying a hundred and fifty feet below the earth, inside the loneliest mountain in France—as if in his own grave. Never in his life had he felt so secure, certainly not in his mother’s belly. The world could go up in flames out there, but he would not even notice it here. He began to cry softly. He did not know whom to thank for such good fortune.

In the days that followed he went into the open only to lick at his watering spot, quickly to relieve himself of his urine and excrement, and to hunt lizards and snakes. They were easy to bag at night when they retreated under flat stones or into little holes where he could trace them with his nose.

He climbed back up to the peak a few more times during the first weeks to sniff out the horizon. But soon that had become more a wearisome habit than a necessity, for he had not once scented the least threat. And so he finally gave up these excursions and was concerned only with getting back into his crypt as quickly as possible once he had taken care of the most basic chores necessary for simple survival. For here, inside the crypt, was where he truly lived. Which is to say, for well over twenty hours a day in total darkness and in total silence and in total immobility, he sat on his horse blanket at the end of the stony corridor, his back resting on the rock slide, his shoulders wedged between the rocks, and enjoyed himself.

We are familiar with people who seek out solitude: penitents, failures, saints, or prophets. They retreat to deserts, preferably, where they live on locusts and honey. Others, however, live in caves or cells on remote islands; some—more spectacularly—squat in cages mounted high atop poles swaying in the breeze. They do this to be nearer to God. Their solitude is a self-mortification by which they do penance. They act in the belief that they are living a life pleasing to God. Or they wait months, years, for their solitude to be broken by some divine message that they hope then speedily to broadcast am

ong mankind.

Grenouille’s case was nothing of the sort. There was not the least notion of God in his head. He was not doing penance nor waiting for some supernatural inspiration. He had withdrawn solely for his own personal pleasure, only to be near to himself. No longer distracted by anything external, he basked in his own existence and found it splendid. He lay in his stony crypt like his own corpse, hardly breathing, his heart hardly beating—and yet lived as intensively and dissolutely as ever a rake had lived in the wide world outside.


The setting for these debaucheries was—how could it be otherwise—the innermost empire where he had buried the husks of every odor encountered since birth. To enhance the mood, he first conjured up those that were earliest and most remote: the hostile, steaming vapors of Madame Gaillard’s bedroom; the bone-dry, leathery bouquet of her hands; the vinegary breath of Father Terrier; the hysterical, hot maternal sweat of Bussie the wet nurse; the carrion stench of the Cimetière des Innocents; the homicidal odor of his mother. And he wallowed in disgust and loathing, and his hair stood on end at the delicious horror.

Tags: Patrick Süskind Horror