Perfume: The Story of a Murderer - Page 16

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What dumbfounded Grenouille most was the fact that he looked so unbelievably normal. The marquis was right: there was nothing special about his looks, nothing handsome, but then nothing especially ugly either. He was a little short of stature, his posture was a little awkward, his face a little expressionless—in short, he looked like a thousand other people. If he were now to go walking down the street, not one person would turn around to look at him. A man such as he now was, should he chance to meet him, would not even strike him as in any way unusual. Unless, of course, he would smell that the man, except for a hint of violets, had as little odor as the gentleman in the mirror—or himself, standing there in front of it.

And yet only ten days before, farmers had run away screaming at the sight of him. He had not felt any different from the way he did now; and now, if he closed his eyes, he felt not one bit different from then. He inhaled the air that rose up from his own body and smelled the bad perfume and the velvet and the freshly glued leather of his shoes; he smelled the silk cloth, the powder, the makeup, the light scent of the soap from Potosí. And suddenly he knew that it had not been the dove bouillon nor the ventilation hocus-pocus that had made a normal person out of him, but solely these few clothes, the haircut, and the little masquerade with cosmetics.

He blinked as he opened his eyes and saw how the gentleman in the mirror blinked back at him and how a little smile played about his carmine lips, as if signaling to him that he did not find him totally unattractive. And Grenouille himself found that the gentleman in the mirror, this odorless figure dressed and made up like a man, was not all that bad either; at least it seemed to him as if the figure—once its costume had been perfected—might have an effect on the world outside that he, Grenouille, would never have expected of himself. He nodded to the figure and saw that in nodding back it flared its nostrils surreptitiously.


The following day—the marquis was just about to instruct him in the basic poses, gestures, and dance steps he would need for his coming social debut—Grenouille faked a fainting spell and, as if totally exhausted and in imminent danger of suffocation, collapsed onto a sofa.

The marquis was beside himself. He screamed for servants, screamed for fan bearers and portable ventilators, and while the servants scurried about, he knelt down at Grenouille’s side, fanning him with a handkerchief soaked in bouquet of violets, and appealed to him, literally begged him, to get to his feet, and please not to breathe his last just yet, but to wait, if at all possible, until the day after tomorrow, since the survival of the theory of the fluidum letale would otherwise be in utmost jeopardy.

Grenouille twisted and turned, coughed, groaned, thrashed at the handkerchief with his arms, and finally, after falling from the sofa in a highly dramatic fashion, crept to the most distant corner of the room. “Not that perfume!” he cried with his last bit of energy. “Not that perfume! It will kill me!” And only when Taillade-Espinasse had tossed the handkerchief out the window and his violet-scented jacket into the next room, did Grenouille allow his attack to ebb, and in a voice that slowly grew calmer explained that as a perfumer he had an occupationally sensitive nose and had always reacted very strongly to certain perfumes, especially so during this period of recuperation. And his only explanation for the fact that the scent of violets in particular—a lovely flower in its own right—should so oppress him was that the marquis’s perfume contained a high percentage of violet root extract, which, being of subterranean origin, must have a pernicious effect on a person like himself suffering from the influence of fluidum letale. Yesterday, at the first application of the scent, he had felt quite queasy, and today, as he had once again perceived the odor of roots, it had been as if someone had pushed him back into that dreadful, suffocating hole where he had vegetated for several years. His very nature had risen up against it, that was all he could say; and now that his grace the marquis had used his art to restore him to a life free of fluidal air, he would rather die on the spot than once again be at the mercy of the dreaded fluidum. At the mere thought of a perfume extracted from roots, he could feel his whole body cramping up. He was firmly convinced, however, that he would recover in an instant if the marquis would permit him to design a perfume of his own, one that would completely drive out the scent of violets. He had in mind an especially light, airy fragrance, consisting primarily of earth-removed ingredients, like eaux of almond and orange blossom, eucalyptus, pine, and cypress oils. A splash of such a scent on his clothes, a few drops on his neck and cheeks—and he would be permanently immune to any repetition of the embarrassing seizure that had just overwhelmed him.…

For clarity’s sake, the proper forms of reported speech have been used here, but in reality this was a verbal eruption of uninterrupted blubberings, accompanied by numerous coughs and gasps and struggles for breath, all of which Grenouille accented with quiverings and fidgetings and rollings of the eyes. The marquis was deeply impressed. It was, however, not so much his ward’s symptoms of suffering as the deft argumentation, presented totally under the aegis of the theory of fluidum letale, that convinced him. Of course it was the violet perfume! An obnoxious, earth-bound—indeed subterranean—product! He himself was probably infected by it after years of use. Had no idea that day in day out he had been bringing himself ever nearer to death by using the scent. His gout, the stiffness in his neck, the enervation of his member, his hemorrhoids, the pressure in his ears, his rotten tooth—all of it doubtless came from the contagious fluidal stench of violet roots. And that stupid little man, that lump of misery there in the corner of the room, had given him the idea. He was touched. He would have loved to have gone over to him, lifted him up, and pressed him to his enlightened heart. But he feared that he still smelled too much of violets, and so he screamed for his servants yet again and ordered that all the violet perfume be removed from the house, the whole mansion aired, his clothes disinfected in the vital-air ventilator, and that Grenouille at once be conveyed in his sedan chair to the best perfumer in the city. And of course this was precisely what Grenouille had intended his seizure to accomplish.

The science of perfumery was an old tradition in Montpellier, and although in more recent times it had lost ground to its competitor, the town of Grasse, there were still several good perfumers and glovers residing in the city. The most prestigious of them, a certain Runel—well aware of the trade he enjoyed with the house of the marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse as its purveyor of soaps, oils, and scents—declared himself prepared to take the unusual step of surrendering his studio for an hour to the strange journeyman perfumer from Paris who had been conveyed thither in a sedan chair. The latter refused all instructions, did not even want to know where things were; he knew his way around, he said, would manage well enough. And he locked himself in the laboratory and stayed there a good hour, while Runel joined the marquis’s majordomo for a couple of glasses of wine in a tavern, where he was to learn why his violet cologne was no longer a scent worth smelling.

Runel’s laboratory and shop fell far short of being so grandly equipped as Baldini’s perfume shop in Paris had been in its day. An average perfumer would not have made any great progress with its few floral oils, colognes, and spices. Grenouille, however, recognized with the first inhaled sniff that the ingredients on hand would be quite sufficient for his purposes. He did not want to create a great scent; he did not want to create a prestigious cologne such as he had once made for Baldini, one that stood out amid a sea of mediocrity and tamed the masses. Nor was even the simple orange blossom scent that he had promised the marquis his true goal. The customary essences of neroli, eucalyptus, and cypress were meant only as a cover for the actual scent that he intended to produce: that was the scent of humanness. He wanted to acquire the human-being odor—if only in the form of an inferior temporary surrogate—that he did not possess himself. True, the odor of human being did not exist, any more than the human countenance. Every human being smelled different, no one knew that better than Grenouille, who recogn

ized thousands upon thousands of individual odors and could sniff out the difference of each human being from birth on. And yet—there was a basic perfumatory theme to the odor of humanity, a rather simple one, by the way: a sweaty-oily, sour-cheesy, quite richly repulsive basic theme that clung to all humans equally and above which each individual’s aura hovered only as a small cloud of more refined particularity.

That aura, however, the highly complex, unmistakable code of a personal odor, was not perceptible for most people in any case. Most people did not know that they even had such a thing, and moreover did everything they could to disguise it under clothes or fashionable artificial odors. Only that basic odor, the primitive human effluvium, was truly familiar to them; they lived exclusively within it and it made them feel secure; and only a person who gave off that standard vile vapor was ever considered one of their own.

It was a strange perfume that Grenouille created that day. There had never before been a stranger one on earth. It did not smell like a scent, but like a human being who gives off a scent. If one had smelled this perfume in a dark room, one would have thought a second person was standing there. And if a human being, who smelled like a human being, had applied it, that person would have seemed to have the smell of two people, or, worse still, to be a monstrous double creature, like some figure that you can no longer clearly pinpoint because it looks blurred and out of focus, like something at the bottom of a lake beneath the shiver of waves.

And to imitate this human odor—quite unsatisfactorily, as he himself knew, but cleverly enough to deceive others—Grenouille gathered up the most striking ingredients in Runel’s workshop.

There was a little pile of cat shit behind the threshold of the door leading out to the courtyard, still rather fresh. He took a half teaspoon of it and placed it together with several drops of vinegar and finely ground salt in a mixing bottle. Under the worktable he found a thumbnail-sized piece of cheese, apparently from one of Runel’s lunches. It was already quite old, had begun to decompose, and gave off a biting, pungent odor. From the lid of a sardine tub that stood at the back of the shop, he scratched off a rancid, fishy something-or-other, mixed it with rotten egg and castoreum, ammonia, nutmeg, horn shavings, and singed pork rind, finely ground. To this he added a relatively large amount of civet, mixed these ghastly ingredients with alcohol, let it digest, and filtered it into a second bottle. The bilge smelled revolting. Its stink was putrid, like a sewer, and if you fanned its vapor just once to mix it with fresh air, it was as if you were standing in Paris on a hot summer day, at the corner of the rue aux Fers and the rue de la Lingerie, where the odors from Les Halles, the Cimetière des Innocents, and the overcrowded tenements converged.

On top of this disgusting base, which smelled more like a cadaver than a human being, Grenouille spread a layer of fresh, oily scents: peppermint, lavender, turpentine, lime, eucalyptus, which he then simultaneously disguised and tamed with the pleasant bouquet of fine floral oils—geranium, rose, orange blossom, and jasmine. After a second dilution with alcohol and a splash of vinegar there was nothing left of the disgusting basic odor on which the mixture was built. The latent stench lay lost and unnoticeable under the fresh ingredients; the nauseous part, pampered by the scent of flowers, had become almost interesting; and, strangely enough, there was no putrefaction left to smell, not the least. On the contrary, the perfume seemed to exhale the robust, vivacious scent of life.

Grenouille filled two flacons with it, stoppered them, and stuck them in his pocket. Then he washed the bottles, mortars, funnels, and spoons carefully with water, rubbed them down with bitter-almond oil to remove all traces of odor, and picked up a second mixing bottle. In it he quickly composed another perfume, a sort of copy of the first, likewise consisting of fresh and floral elements, but containing nothing of the witches’ brew as a base, but rather a totally conventional one of musk, ambergris, a tiny bit of civet, and cedarwood oil. By itself it smelled totally different from the first—flatter, more innocent, detoxified—for it lacked the components of the imitation human odor. But once a normal human being applied it and married it to his own odor, it could no longer be distinguished from the one that Grenouille had created exclusively for himself.

After he had poured the second perfume into flacons, he stripped and sprinkled his clothes with the first. Then he dabbed himself in the armpits, between the toes, on the genitals, on the chest, neck, ears, and hair, put his clothes back on, and left the laboratory.


As he came out onto the street, he was suddenly afraid, for he knew that for the first time in his life he was giving off a human odor. He found that he stank, stank quite disgustingly. And because he could not imagine that other people would not also perceive his odor as a stench, he did not dare go directly into the tavern where Runel and the marquis’s majordomo were waiting for him. It seemed less risky to him first to try out his new aura in an anonymous environment.

He slipped down toward the river through the darkest and narrowest alleyways, where tanners and dyers had their workshops and carried on their stinking business. When someone approached, or if he passed an entryway where children were playing or women were sitting, he forced himself to walk more slowly, bringing his odor with him in a large, compact cloud.

From his youth on, he had been accustomed to people’s passing him and taking no notice of him whatever, not out of contempt—as he had once believed—but because they were quite unaware of his existence. There was no space surrounding him, no waves broke from him into the atmosphere, as with other people; he had no shadow, so to speak, to cast across another’s face. Only if he ran right into someone in a crowd or in a street-corner collision would there be a brief moment of discernment; and the person encountered would bounce off and stare at him for a few seconds as if gazing at a creature that ought not even to exist, a creature that, although undeniably there, in some way or other was not present—and would take to his heels and have forgotten him, Grenouille, a moment later.…

But now, in the streets of Montpellier, Grenouille sensed and saw with his own eyes—and each time he saw it anew, a powerful sense of pride washed over him—that he exerted an effect on people. As he passed a woman who stood bent down over the edge of a well, he noticed how she raised her head for a moment to see who was there, and then, apparently satisfied, turned back to her bucket. A man who was standing with his back to him turned around and gazed after him with curiosity for a good while. The children he met scooted to one side—not out of fear, but to make room for him; and even when they came hurtling out of a side doorway right toward him, they were not frightened, but simply slipped naturally on past him as if they had anticipated an approaching person.

Several such meetings taught him to assess more precisely the power and effect of his new aura, and he grew more self-assured and cocky. He moved more rapidly toward people, passed by them more closely, even stretched out one arm a little, grazing the arm of a passerby as if by chance. Once he jostled a man as if by accident while moving to pass around him. He stopped, apologized, and the man—who only yesterday would have reacted to Grenouille’s sudden appearance as if to a thunderbolt—behaved as though nothing had happened, accepted the apology, even smiled briefly, and clapped Grenouille on the shoulder.

He left the back streets and entered the square before the cathedral of Saint-Pierre. The bells were ringing. There was a crush of people at both sides of the portal. A wedding had just ended. People wanted to see the bride. Grenouille hurried over and mingled with the crowd. He shoved, bored his way in to where he wanted to be, where people were packed together most densely, where he could be cheek by jowl with them, rubbing his own scent directly under their noses. And in the thick of the crush, he spread his arms, spread his legs, and opened his collar so that the odor could flow unimpeded from his body … and his joy was boundless when he noticed that the others noticed nothing, nothing whatever, that all these men, women, and children standing pressed about him could be so easily du

ped, that they could inhale his concoction of cat shit, cheese, and vinegar as an odor just like their own and accept him, Grenouille the cuckoo’s egg, in their midst as a human being among human beings.

He felt a child against his knee, a little girl standing wedged in among the adults. He lifted her up with hypocritical concern and held her with one arm so that she could see better. The mother not only tolerated this, she thanked him as well, and the kid yowled with delight.

Grenouille stood there like that in the bosom of the crowd for a good quarter of an hour, a strange child pressed sanctimoniously to his chest. And while the wedding party passed by—to the accompaniment of the booming bells and the cheers of the masses and a pelting shower of coins—Grenouille broke out in a different jubilation, a black jubilation, a wicked feeling of triumph that set him quivering and excited him like an attack of lechery, and he had trouble keeping from spurting it like venom and spleen over all these people and screaming exultantly in their faces: that he was not afraid of them; that he hardly hated them anymore; but that his contempt for them was profound and total, because they were so dumb they stank; because they could be deceived by him, let themselves be deceived; because they were nothing, and he was everything! And as if to mock them, he pressed the child still closer to him, bursting out and shouting in chorus with the others: “Hurrah for the bride! Long live the bride! Long live the glorious couple!”

When the wedding party had departed and the crowd had begun to disperse, he gave the child back to its mother and went into the church—to recover from his excitement and rest a little. Inside the cathedral the air was still filled with incense billowing up in cold clouds from two thuribles at each side of the altar and lying in a suffocating layer above the lighter odors of the people who had just been sitting there. Grenouille hunched down on a bench behind the choir.

Tags: Patrick Süskind Horror