One of my favorite novels of all time is Patrick Süskind’s, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. The protagonist is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, born to a woman who was a fishmonger in 1738. Having had 6 children, all still-born, she tries to abandon the 7th but is caught and hanged for her crime. The child is handed over to a wet nurse who detects the baby has no scent. Terrified, she hands him over to a priest who hands him over to an orphanage where he is tormented by everyone around him. Ironically, his one gift is a remarkable sense of smell which he uses to sniff out the weaknesses in others. The talent makes him an outcast and for 7 years he lives alone in a mountain cave. Eventually, he wends his way back to civilization, having learned to disguise his body’s defect by covering himself in dirty rags and a mixture of cat shit, cheese, and vinegar — a combination he considers to be similar to human odor. Eventually, he apprentices himself to a perfumer who revels in the young man’s sensitive nose. That genius brings customers from miles around. But Grenouille is on his own mission. He has become fascinated with the scent of beautiful, virgin girls who are on the cusp between adolescence and womanhood. He begins murdering the best of these to capture their essence in an intoxicating perfume. 24 die before he is stopped.
Süskind’s plot is original, extraordinary and one of fanciful imagination, one would think. But art mirrors life and sometimes the reflection pales. Consider an article written by Beau Friedlaner about a Crematory in Appalachia. For reasons, which he cannot explain, the manager of the establishment decided to stockpile corpses instead of committing them to the flames. Eventually, an odor permeated the small town and upon investigation, the authorities discovered a scene which was beyond grim…”corpses jellying into dreadlocks of waxen gray material, fermented fat and muscle twisted around moldy bones,” all emitting a stench no human could long endure. (“A Brief History of Scent,” by Beau Friedlander, Harpers, August 2013, pg. 73.)
FEMA was called and they brought in the military which immediately recognized an opportunity in the midst of this grisly scene. Soldiers on the battlefield are exposed to many noxious scents – the gaseous odors of bodies being blown apart or encounters with decaying corpses. Officials wondered if the scent emanating around the Crematory could be used to treat post dramatic stress. They decided that it could. Then another idea followed. Might these decaying corpses provide a formula for a “universal malodor” — a scent that crossed cultural lines and could be used in nonlethal biological warfare to clear areas of its population? (Ibid pg. 74) The idea took hold and is under investigation.
For centuries perfumes have been applied to disguise noxious smells. In the 21 century, their use is being reversed. Süskind, a brilliant author, couldn’t have foreseen that nor the House of Chanel, I suspect.
(First published 8/21/13)