Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick S"uskind. Translated by John E. Woods. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 255 pp. $16.95. Long before this novel by Patrick S"uskind hit bookstores - and best-seller lists - in the United States, word from across the Atlantic was that ``Perfume'' was a ``major work'' by a ``brilliant'' West German writer.
The superlatives may seem somewhat surprising considering that the object of the praise is a rather erudite historical novel. Its protagonist is a warped young man who is possessed of a phenomenal sense of smell, yet - and this twist, even more surprisingly, is what actually propels the gruesome plot - has no odor himself. Certainly not your average best-seller material.
But Mr. S"uskind has woven this unlikely tale into an original and compelling first novel. This is no Stephen King horror story. S"uskind writes with a deliberate restraint - dwelling on few graphic details - as he unfolds a deeper message.
``Perfume'' opens in 1738, in a smelly Parisian slum where Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born - and immediately abandoned by his mother. Early on, the baby proves to be unsettling to those around him: He has no odor.
Grenouille, however, has a sense of smell so acute that he recognizes and remembers millions of odors, virtually cataloging his life through scents. His existence is a miserable one, until the day he persuades a master perfumer to take him on as his apprentice. With an opportunity at long last to put his extraordinary sense of smell into action, Grenouille soon creates perfumes that captivate all of Paris.
But Grenouille leaves Paris to escape the odious smell and settles into seclusion in a mountain cave. There his final, maniacal plan to rule the world through the power of scent is triggered when Grenouille accidentally discovers for himself that he has no odor - and therefore, in his mind, no identity. When Grenouille finally pinpoints the scent capable of inspiring the mesmeric love he wishes to command - the scent of young girls on the verge of womanhood - he pursues his murderous goal with chilling calculation.
On one level, ``Perfume'' is a fascinating exploration of the ``essence'' of identity. But on a deeper level, this is a story about the fraudulence of defining experience and self through the senses.
It is hardly a coincidence that S"uskind has chosen to set his story in the 18th century's Age of Enlightenment, a period marked by the conviction that right reasoning would lead to true knowledge and happiness for humanity. In the course of the novel, Grenouille makes a mockery of the era's ``men of science.''
Yet S"uskind does not allow Grenouille the last laugh. In the final, unsettling scenes of ``Perfume,'' S"uskind exposes Grenouille's mastery of sense, laying bare both the deceit and the emptiness of a life lived by sense alone.
S"uskind's message is a powerful one. The stunning scene he sets in illustrating the power of Grenouille's perfume over a crowd of thousands is an obvious reference to Hitler. It is also a veiled warning to mankind today and an unspoken urging of the need for humanity to keep searching for a more profound and enduring enlightenment.