Patrick Suskind: «Perfume. The story of a murderer»
high, that you could not see the sky, and the air at ground level formed damp canals where odors
congealed. It was a mixture of human and animal smells, of water and stone and ashes and leather, of
soap and fresh-baked bread and eggs boiled in vinegar, of noodles and smoothly polished brass, of
sage and ale and tears, of grease and soggy straw and dry straw. Thousands upon thousands of odors
formed an invisible gruel that filled the street ravines, only seldom evaporating above the rooftops and
never from the ground below. The people who lived there no longer experienced this gruel as a special
smell; it had arisen from them and they had been steeped in it over and over again; it was, after all, the
very air they breathed and from which they lived, it was like clothes you have worn so long you no
longer smell them or feel them against your skin. Grenouille, however, smelled it all as if for the first
time. And he did not merely smell the mixture of odors in the aggregate, but he dissected it analytically
into its smallest and most remote parts and pieces. His discerning nose unraveled the knot of vapor and
stench into single strands of unitary odors that could not be unthreaded further. Unwinding and
spinning out these threads gave him unspeakable joy.
He would often just stand there, leaning against a wall or crouching in a dark corner, his eyes
closed, his mouth half open and nostrils flaring wide, quiet as a feeding pike in a great, dark, slowly
moving current. And when at last a puff of air would toss a delicate thread of scent his way, he would
lunge at it and not let go. Then he would smell at only this one odor, holding it tight, pulling it into
himself and preserving it for all time. The odor might be an old acquaintance, or a variation on one; it
could be a brand-new one as well, with hardly any similarity to anything he had ever smelled, let alone
seen, till that moment: the odor of pressed silk, for example, the odor of a wild-thyme tea, the odor of
brocade embroidered with silver thread, the odor of a cork from a bottle of vintage wine, the odor of a
tortoiseshell comb. Grenouille was out to find such odors still unknown to him; he hunted them down
with the passion and patience of an angler and stored them up inside him.
When he had smelled his fill of the thick gruel of the streets, he would go to airier terrain, where
the odors were thinner, mixing with the wind as they unfurled, much as perfume does-to the market of
Les Halles, for instance, where the odors of the day lived on into the evening, invisibly but ever so
distinctly, as if the vendors still swarmed among the crowd, as if the baskets still stood there stuffed
full of vegetables and eggs, or the casks full of wine and vinegar, the sacks with their spices and
potatoes and flour, the crates of nails and screws, the meat tables, the tables full of doth and dishes and
shoe soles and all the hundreds of other things sold there during the day… the bustle of it all down to
the smallest detail was still present in the air that had been left behind. Gre-nouille saw the whole
market smelling, if it can be put that way. And he smelled it more precisely than many people could
see it, for his perception was after the fact and thus of a higher order: an essence, a spirit of what had
been, something undisturbed by the everyday accidents of the moment, like noise, glare, or the
nauseating press of living human beings.
Or he would go to the spot where they had beheaded his mother, to the place de Greve, which
stuck out to lick the river like a huge tongue. Here lay the ships, pulled up onto shore or moored to
posts, and they smelled of coal and grain and hay and damp ropes.
And from the west, via this one passage cut through the city by the river, came a broad current of
wind bringing with it the odors of the country, of the meadows around Neuilly, of the forests between
Saint-Germain and Versailles, of far-off cities like Rouen or Caen and sometimes of the sea itself. The
sea smelled like a sail whose billows had caught up water, salt, and a cold sun. It had a simple smell,
the sea, but at the same time it smelled immense and unique, so much so that Grenouille hesitated to
dissect the odors into fishy, salty, watery, seaweedy, fresh-airy, and so on. He preferred to leave the
smell of the sea blended together, preserving it as a unit in his memory, relishing it whole. The smell
of the sea pleased him so much that he wanted one day to take it in, pure and unadulterated, in such
quantities that he could get drunk on it. And later, when he learned from stories how large the sea is
and that you can sail upon it in ships for days on end without ever seeing land, nothing pleased him
more than the image of himself sitting high up in the crow’s nest of the foremost mast on such a ship,
gliding on through the endless smell of the sea-which really was no smell, but a breath, an exhalation
of breath, the end of all smells-dissolving with pleasure in that breath. But it was never to be, for
Grenouille, who stood there on the riverbank at the place de Greve steadily breathing in and out the
scraps of sea breeze that he could catch in his nose, would never in his life see the sea, the real sea, the
immense ocean that lay to the west, and would never be able to mingle himself with its smell. He had
Patrick Suskind: «Perfume. The story of a murderer»
soon so thoroughly smelled out the quarter between Saint-Eustache and the Hotel de Ville that he
could find his way around in it by pitch-dark night. And so he expanded his hunting grounds, first
westward to the Faubourg Saint-Honore, then out along the rue Saint-Antoine to the Bastille, and
finally across to the other bank of the river into the quarters of the Sorbonne and the Faubourg
Saint-Germain where the rich people lived. Through the wrought-iron gates at their portals came the
smells of coach leather and of the powder in the pages’ wigs, and over the high walls passed the
garden odors of broom and roses and freshly trimmed hedges. It was here as well that Grenouille first
smelled perfume in the literal sense of the word: a simple lavender or rose water, with which the
fountains of the gardens were filled on gala occasions; but also the more complex, more costly scents,
of tincture of musk mixed with oils of neroli and tuberose, jonquil, jasmine, or cinnamon, that floated
behind the carriages like rich ribbons on the evening breeze. He made note of these scents, registering
them just as he would profane odors, with curiosity, but without particular admiration. Of course he
realized that the purpose of perfumes was to create an intoxicating and alluring effect, and he
recognized the value of the individual essences that comprised them. But on the whole they seemed to
him rather coarse and ponderous, more slapdashed together than composed, and he knew that he could
produce entirely different fragrances if he only had the basic ingredients at his disposal.
He knew many of these ingredients already from the flower and spice stalls at the market; others
were new to him, and he filtered them out from the aromatic mixture and kept them unnamed in his
memory: ambergris, civet, patchouli, sandalwood, bergamot, vetiver, opopanax, benzoin, hop blossom,
He was not particular about it. He did not differentiate between what is commonly considered a
good and a bad smell, not yet. He was greedy. The goal of the hunt was simply to possess everything
the world could offer in the way of odors, and his only condition was that the odors be new ones. The
smell of a sweating horse meant just as much to him as the tender green bouquet of a bursting rosebud,
the acrid stench of a bug was no less worthy than the aroma rising from a larded veal roast in an
aristocrat’s kitchen. He devoured everything, everything, sucking it up into him. But there were no
aesthetic principles governing the olfactory kitchen of his imagination, where he was forever
synthesizing and concocting new aromatic combinations. He fashioned grotes-queries, only to destroy
them again immediately, like a child playing with blocks-inventive and destructive, with no apparent
norms for his creativity.
O N SEPTEMBER 1, 1753, the anniversary of the king’s coronation, the city of Paris set off
fireworks at the Pont-Royal. The display was not as spectacular as the fireworks celebrating the king’s
marriage, or as the legendary fireworks in honor of the dauphin’s birth, but it was impressive
nevertheless. They had mounted golden sunwheeis on the masts of the ships. From the bridge itself
so-called fire bulls spewed showers of burning stars into the river. And while from every side came the
deafening roar of petards exploding and of firecrackers skipping across the cobblestones, rockets rose
into the sky and painted white lilies against the black firmament. Thronging the bridge and the quays
along both banks of the river, a crowd of many thousands accompanied the spectacle with ah’s and
oh’s and even some “long live” ‘s-although the king had ascended his throne more than thirty-eight
years before and the high point of his popularity was Song since behind him. Fireworks can do that.
Grenouille stood silent in the shadow of the Pavilion de Flore, across from the Pont-Neuf on the
right bank. He did not stir a finger to applaud, did not even look up at the ascending rockets. He had
come in hopes of getting a whiff of something new, but it soon became apparent that fireworks had
nothing to offer in the way of odors. For all their extravagant variety as they glittered and gushed and
crashed and whistled, they left behind a very monotonous mixture of smells: sulfur, oil, and saltpeter.
He was just about to leave this dreary exhibition and head homewards along the gallery of the
Louvre when the wind brought him something, a tiny, hardly noticeable something, a crumb, an atom
of scent; no, even less than that: it was more the premonition of a scent than the scent itself-and at the
same time it was definitely a premonition of something he had never smelled before. He backed up
against the wall, closed his eyes, and flared his nostrils. The scent was so exceptionally delicate and
fine that he could not hold on to it; it continually eluded his perception, was masked by the powder
Patrick Suskind: «Perfume. The story of a murderer»
smoke of the petards, blocked by the exudations of the crowd, fragmented and crushed by the
thousands of other city odors. But then, suddenly, it was there again, a mere shred, the whiff of a
magnificent premonition for only a second… and it vanished at once. Grenouille suffered agonies. For
the first time, it was not just that his greedy nature was offended, but his very heart ached. He had the
prescience of something extraordinary-this scent was the key for ordering all odors, one could
understand nothing about odors if one did not understand this one scent, and his whole life would be
bungled, if he, Grenouille, did not succeed in possessing it. He had to have it, not simply in order to
possess it, but for his heart to be at peace.
He was almost sick with excitement. He had not yet even figured out what direction the scent
was coming from. Sometimes there were intervals of several minutes before a shred was again wafted
his way, and each time he was overcome by the horrible anxiety that he had lost it forever. He was
finally rescued by a desperate conviction that the scent was coming from the other bank of the river,
from somewhere to the southeast.
He moved away from the wall of the Pavilion de Flore, dived into the crowd, and made his way
across the bridge. Every few strides he would stop and stand on tiptoe in order to take a sniff from
above people’s heads, at first smelling nothing for pure excitement; then finally there was something,
he smelled the scent, stronger than before, knew that he was on the right track, dived in again,
burrowed through the throng of gapers and pyrotechnicians unremittingly setting torch to their rocket
fuses, lost the scent in the acrid smoke of the powder, panicked, shoved and jostled his way through
and burrowed onward, and after countless minutes reached the far bank, the Hotel de Mailly, the Quai
Malaquest, the entrance to the rue de Seine,…
Here he stopped, gathering his forces, and smelled. He had it. He had hold of it tight. The odor
came rolling down the rue de Seine like a ribbon, unmistakably clear, and yet as before very delicate
and very fine. Grenouille felt his heart pounding, and he knew that it was not the exertion of running
that had set it pounding, but rather his excited helplessness in the presence of this scent. He tried to
recall something comparable, but had to discard all comparisons. This scent had a freshness, but not
the freshness of limes or pomegranates, not the freshness of myrrh or cinnamon bark or curly mint or
birch or camphor or pine needles, nor that of a May rain or a frosty wind or of well water… and at the
same time it had warmth, but not as bergamot, cypress, or musk has, or jasmine or daffodils, not as
rosewood has or iris… This scent was a blend of both, of evanescence and substance, not a blend, but a
unity, although slight and frail as well, and yet solid and sustaining, like a piece of thin, shimmering
silk… and yet again not like silk, but like pastry soaked in honeysweet milk-and try as he would he
couldn’t fit those two together: milk and silk! This scent was inconceivable, indescribable, could not
be categorized in any way-it really ought not to exist at all. And yet there it was as plain and splendid
as day. Grenouille followed it, his fearful heart pounding, for he suspected that it was not he who
followed the scent, but the scent that had captured him and was drawing him irresistibly to it.
He walked up the rue de Seine. No one was on the street. The houses stood empty and still. The
people were down by the river watching the fireworks. No hectic odor of humans disturbed him, no
biting stench of gunpowder. The street smelled of its usual smells: water, feces, rats, and vegetable
matter. But above it hovered the ribbon, delicate and clear, leading Grenouille on. After a few steps,
what little light the night afforded was swallowed by the tall buildings, and Grenouille walked on in
darkness. He did not need to see. The scent led him firmly.
Fifty yards farther, he turned off to the right up the rue des Marais, a narrow alley hardly a span
wide and darker still-if that was possible. Strangely enough, the scent was not much stronger. It was
only purer, and in its augmented purity, it took on an even greater power of attraction. Grenouille
walked with no will of his own. At one point, the scent pulled him strongly to the right, straight
through what seemed to be a wall. A low entryway opened up, leading into a back courtyard.
Grenouille moved along the passage like a somnambulist, moved across the courtyard, turned a corner,
entered a second, smaller courtyard, and here finally there was light-a space of only a few square feet.
A wooden roof hung out from the wall. Beneath it, a table, a candle stuck atop it. A girl was sitting at
the table cleaning yellow plums. With her left hand, she took the fruit from a basket, stemmed and
pitted it with a knife, and dropped it into a bucket. She might have been thirteen, fourteen years old.
Gre-nouille stood still. He recognized at once the source of the scent that he had followed from half a
mile away on the other bank of the river: not this squalid courtyard, not the plums. The source was the
Patrick Suskind: «Perfume. The story of a murderer»
For a moment he was so confused that he actually thought he had never in all his life seen
anything so beautiful as this girl-although he only caught her from behind in silhouette against the
candlelight. He meant, of course, he had never smelled anything so beautiful. But since he knew the
smell of humans, knew it a thousandfold, men, women, children, he could not conceive of how such an
exquisite scent could be emitted by a human being. Normally human odor was nothing special, or it
was ghastly. Children smelled insipid, men urinous, all sour sweat and cheese, women smelled of
rancid fat and rotting fish. Totally uninteresting, repulsive-that was how humans smelled… And so it
happened that for the first time in his life, Grenouille did not trust his nose and had to call on his eyes
for assistance if he was to believe what he smelled. This confusion of senses did not last long at all.
Actually he required only a moment to convince himself optically-then to abandon himself all the
more ruthlessly to olfactory perception. And now he smelled that this was a human being, smelled the
sweat of her armpits, the oil in her hair, the fishy odor of her genitals, and smelied it all with the
greatest pleasure. Her sweat smelled as fresh as the sea breeze, the tallow of her hair as sweet as nut
oil, her genitals were as fragrant as the bouquet of water lilies, her skin as apricot blossoms… and the
harmony of all these components yielded a perfume so rich, so balanced, so magical, that every
perfume that Grenouille had smelled until now, every edifice of odors that he had so playfully created
within himself, seemed at once to be utterly meaningless. A hundred thousand odors seemed worthless
in the presence of this scent. This one scent was the higher principle, the pattern by which the others
must be ordered. It was pure beauty.
Grenouille knew for certain that unless he possessed this scent, his life would have no meaning.
He had to understand its smallest detail, to follow it to its last delicate tendril; the mere memory,
however complex, was not enough. He wanted to press, to emboss this apotheosis of scent on his
black, muddled soul, meticulously to explore it and from this point on, to think, to live, to smell only
according to the innermost structures of its magic formula.
He slowly approached the girl, closer and closer, stepped under the overhanging roof, and halted
one step behind her. She did not hear him.
She had red hair and wore a gray, sleeveless dress. Her arms were very white and her hands
yellow with the juice of the halved plums. Grenouille stood bent over her and sucked in the undiluted
fragrance of her as it rose from her nape, her hair, from the neckline of her dress. He let it flow into
him like a gentle breeze. He had never felt so wonderful. But the girl felt the air turn cool.
She did not see Grenouille. But she was uneasy, sensed a strange chill, the kind one feels when
suddenly overcome with some long discarded fear. She felt as if a cold draft had risen up behind her,
as if someone had opened a door leading into a vast, cold cellar. And she laid the paring knife aside,
pulled her arms to her chest, and turned around.
She was so frozen with terror at the sight of him that he had plenty of time to put his hands to her
throat. She did not attempt to cry out, did not budge, did not make the least motion to defend herself.
He, in turn, did not look at her, did not see her delicate, freckled face, her red lips, her large sparkling
green eyes, keeping his eyes closed tight as he strangled her, for he had only one concern-not to lose
the least trace of her scent.
When she was dead he laid her on the ground among the plum pits, tore off her dress, and the
stream of scent became a flood that inundated him with its fragrance. He thrust his face to her skin and
swept his flared nostrils across her, from belly to breast, to neck, over her face and hair, and back to
her belly, down to her genitals, to her thighs and white legs. He smelled her over from head to toe, he
gathered up the last fragments of her scent under her chin, in her navel, and in the wrinkles inside her
And after he had smelled the last faded scent of her, he crouched beside her for a while,
collecting himself, for he was brimful with her. He did not want to spill a drop of her scent. First he
must seal up his innermost compartments. Then he stood up and blew out the candle.
Meanwhile people were starting home, singing and hurrahing their way up the rue de Seine.
Grenouille smelled his way down the dark alley and out onto the rue des Petits Augustins, which lay
parallel to the rue de Seine and led to the river. A little while later, the dead girl was discovered. A hue
and cry arose. Torches were lit. The watch arrived. Grenouille had long since gained the other bank.
That night, his closet seemed to him a palace, and his plank bed a four-poster. Never before in
Patrick Suskind: «Perfume. The story of a murderer»
his life had he known what happiness was. He knew at most some very rare states of numbed
contentment. But now he was quivering with happiness and could not sleep for pure bliss. It was as if
he had been born a second time; no, not a second time, the first time, for until now he had merely
existed like an animal with a most nebulous self-awareness. But after today, he felt as if he finally
knew who he really was: nothing less than a genius. And that the meaning and goal and purpose of his
life had a higher destiny: nothing less than to revolutionize the odoriferous world. And that he alone in
ail the world possessed the means to carry it off: namely, his exquisite nose, his phenomenal memory,
and, most important, the master scent taken from that girl in the rue des Marais. Contained within it
was the magic formula for everything that could make a scent, a perfume, great: delicacy, power,
stability, variety, and terrifying, irresistible beauty. He had found the compass for his future life. And
like all gifted abominations, for whom some external event makes straight the way down into the
chaotic vortex of their souls, Grenouille never again departed from what he believed was the direction
fate had pointed him. It was clear to him now why he had clung to life so tenaciously, so -savagely. He
must become a creator of scents. And not just an average one. But, rather, the greatest perfumer of all
And during that same night, at first awake and then in his dreams, he inspected the vast rubble of
his memory. He examined the millions and millions of building blocks of odor and arranged them
systematically: good with good, bad with bad, fine with fine, coarse with coarse, fetid with fetid,
ambrosial with ambrosial. In the course of the next week, this system grew ever more refined, the
catalog of odors ever more comprehensive and differentiated, the hierarchy ever clearer. And soon he
could begin to erect the first carefully planned structures of odor: houses, walls, stairways, towers,
cellars, rooms, secret chambers… an inner fortress built of the most magnificent odors, that each day
grew larger, that each day grew more beautiful and more perfectly framed. A murder had been the start
of this splendor-if he was at all aware of the fact, it was a matter of tota! indifference to him. Already
he could no longer recall how the girl from the rue des Marais had looked, not her face, not her body.
He had preserved the best part of her and made it his own: the principle of her scent.
T HERE WERE a baker’s dozen of perfumers in Paris in those days. Six of them resided on the
right bank, six on the left, and one exactly in the middle, that is, on the Pont-au-Change, which
connected the right bank with the He de la Cite. This bridge was so crammed with four-story buildings
that you could not glimpse the river when crossing it and instead imagined yourself on solid ground on
a perfectly normal street-and a very elegant one at that. Indeed, the Pont-au-Change was considered
one of the finest business addresses in the city. The most renowned shops were to be found here; here
were the goldsmiths, the cabinetmakers, the best wigmakers and pursemakers, the manufacturers of the
finest lingerie and stockings, the picture framers, the merchants for riding boots, the embroiderers of
epaulets, the mold-ers of gold buttons, and the bankers. And here as well stood the business and
residence of the perfumer and glover Giuseppe Baldini. Above his display window was stretched a
sumptuous green-lacquered baldachin, next to which hung Baldini’s coat of arms, all in gold: a golden
flacon, from which grew a bouquet of golden flowers. And before the door lay a red carpet, also
bearing the Baldini coat of arms embroidered in gold. When you opened the door, Persian chimes rang
out, and two silver herons began spewing violet-scented toilet water from their beaks into a gold-plated
vessel, which in turn was shaped like the flacon in the Baldini coat of arms.
Behind the counter of light boxwood, however, stood Baldini himself, old and stiff as a pillar, in
a silver-powdered wig and a blue coat adorned with gold frogs. A cloud of the frangipani with which
he sprayed himself every morning enveloped him almost visibly, removing him to a hazy distance. So
immobile was he, he looked like part of his own inventory. Only if the chimes rang and the herons
spewed-both of which occurred rather seldom-did he suddenly come to life, his body folding up into a
small, scrambling figure that scurried out from behind the counter with numerous bows and scrapes, so
quickly that the cloud of frangipani could hardly keep up with him, and bade his customer take a seat
while he exhibited the most exquisite perfumes and cosmetics.
Baldini had thousands of them. His stock ranged from essences absolues-floral oils, tinctures,
extracts, secretions, balms, resins, and other drugs in dry, liquid, or waxy form-through diverse
Patrick Suskind: «Perfume. The story of a murderer»
pomades, pastes, powders, soaps, creams, sachets, bandolines, brilliantines, mustache waxes, wart
removers, and beauty spots, all the way to bath oils, lotions, smelling salts, toilet vinegars, and
countless genuine perfumes. But Baldini was not content with these products of classic beauty care. It
was his ambition to assemble in his shop everything that had a scent or in some fashion contributed to
the production of scent. And so in addition to incense pastilles, incense candles, and cords, there were
also sundry spices, from anise seeds to zapota seeds, syrups, cordials, and fruit brandies, wines from
Cyprus, Malaga, and Corinth, honeys, coffees, teas, candied and dried fruits, figs, bonbons, chocolates,
chestnuts, and even pickled capers, cucumbers, and onions, and marinated tuna. Plus perfumed sealing
waxes, stationery, lover’s ink scented with attar of roses, writing kits of Spanish leather, penholders of
whjte sandalwood, caskets and chests of cedarwood, potpourris and bowls for flower petals, brass
incense holders, crystal flacons and cruses with stoppers of cut amber, scented gloves, handkerchiefs,
sewing cushions filled with mace, and musk-sprinkled wallpaper that could fill a room with scent for
more than a century.
Naturally there was not room for all these wares in the splendid but small shop that opened onto
the street (or onto the bridge), and so for lack of a cellar, storage rooms occupied not just the attic, but
the whole second and third floors, as well as almost every room facing the river on the ground floor.
The result was that an indescribable chaos of odors reigned in the House of Baldini. However exquisite
the quality of individual items-for Baldini bought wares of only highest quality-the blend of odors was
almost unbearable, as if each musician in a thousand-member orchestra were playing a different
melody at fortissimo. Baldini and his assistants were themselves inured to this chaos, like aging
orchestra conductors (all of whom are hard of hearing, of course); and even his wife, who lived on the
fourth floor, bitterly defending it against further encroachments by the storage area, hardly noticed the
many odors herself anymore. Not so the customer entering Baldini’s shop for the first time. The
prevailing mishmash of odors hit him like a punch in the face. Depending on his constitution, it might
exalt or daze him, but in any case caused such a confusion of senses that he often no longer knew what
he had come for. Errand boys forgot their orders.
Belligerent gentlemen grew queasy. And many ladies took a spell, half-hysteric,
half-claustrophobic, fainted away, and could be revived only with the most pungent smelling salts of
clove oil, ammonia, and camphor.
Under such conditions, it was really not at all astonishing that the Persian chimes at the door of
Giuseppe Baldini’s shop rang and the silver herons spewed less and less frequently.
“C HENIER!” BALDINI cried from behind the counter where for hours he had stood rigid as a
pillar, staring at the door. “Put on your wig!” And out from among the kegs of olive oil and dangling
Bayonne hams appeared Chenier-Baldini’s assistant, somewhat younger than the latter, but already an
old man himself-and moved toward the elegant front of the shop. He pulled his wig from his coat
pocket and shoved it on his head. “Are you going out, Monsieur Baldini?”
“No,” said Baldini. “I shall retire to my study for a few hours, and I do not wish to be disturbed
under any circumstances.”
“Ah, I see! You are creating a new perfume.”
BALDSNI: Correct. With which to impregnate a Spanish hide for Count Verhamont. He wants
something like… like… I think he said it’s called Amor and Psyche, and comes he says from that…
that bungler in the rue Saint-Andre-des-Arts, that… that…
BALDINI: Yes. Indeed. That’s the bungler’s name. Amor and Psyche, by Pelissier.-Do you
CHENIER: Yes, yes. I do indeed. You can smell it everywhere these days. Smell it on every
street corner. But if you ask me-nothing special! It most certainly can’t be compared in any way with
what you will create, Monsieur Baldini.
BALDSNI: Naturally not.
CHENIER: It’s a terribly common scent, this Amor and Psyche.
Documents you may be interested
Documents you may be interested