It was about twenty years ago that I first realized that not everyone had a sense of smell that was as keen as my own.
A young lady I was sweet on was strolling with me through a mall, and she wanted to go in to one of those stores that sell fripperies for your bed-and-bath. I had always avoided those places because I dislike strong smells, but this time around there was a girl urging me on. Which one of my male readers hasn’t done something against their natures when a woman is involved?
The interior of the store was just as you would expect. There were sachets, jars of potpourri, perfumed soap, body oils, body washes, shampoos, and various bath oils. The odors had all percolated, mixed together, and produced an overpowering miasma that filled every corner of the store. If there is a hell where bad flowers go when they die, then that store was a portal to that particular perdition.
But I noticed something curious while I was in there. I kept running into people! I would turn or take a step back, absolutely sure that there was no one to trip me up, and I would end up stepping on some poor sap’s foot. What the hell was going on?
After some reflection backed up by experimentation, I found out that I have a particularly acute sense of smell. I was colliding with the other people in the store because the perfumed atmosphere was blanking out my nose, and I had become used to knowing when someone was close to me by the odor they gave off.
There are certain advantages to having the nose that is about as sensitive as that of a bloodhound with a really bad cold. I never add too much spice to any dish, I can tell when something is done in the oven without taking a look, and I tend to appreciate food more than most people because I can taste subtleties that they miss. There is even a safety aspect to it, as it is difficult for people to sneak up on me because I smell them coming. Upon entering a house or apartment, I can usually tell if someone is on the premises.
But the disadvantages are more noticeable, particularly when I was working for the police. All those street people, drug addicts, and drunks were hardly the rose of humanity. There are few horrors that I will now shirk from after having to fingerprint an overweight prostitute, greasy and glistening, that was picked up on a very warm night. Not only was it obvious that she needed a bath, but my nose could also tell that she forgot to pack tissues in her purse when she left home to go to work.
My friends, as you might imagine, thought that this was endlessly amusing. As a joke, a buddy gave me a used and worn copy of a book entitled Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind. They said that it had been written with me in mind.
The novel relates the fictional tale of a man who was born with a supernatural sense of smell in France in the early 18th Century. Viewing and interacting with the world through his remarkable nose, unable to view other human beings as anything more than a collection of scents, he grows up on the meanest of the mean streets of Paris without anything we would recognize as normal emotions. Eventually he becomes a serial killer of young women, not to have sex with them but to leach their bodies of their smell so he could create the perfect perfume with their essence.
I found the book to be extremely interesting, as the author obviously spent some time thinking about how someone with an extremely sensitive nose would navigate through, and relate to, the world. Even though it had been originally written in German, the English translation I read was very good. The descriptions of what the protagonist feels are top notch.
But while the book was interesting, it wasn’t particularly satisfying or entertaining. The main character has virtually no personality, and the descriptions of how he perceives odors takes up so much room on the pages that there isn’t enough time to develop any sympathy for anyone else. The story was really just a tale of a guy I couldn’t care about killing people who barely registered as individuals. I’ll hold the novel up in a heartbeat as a fine example of the wordsmith’s art, but I have never bothered to recommend it to anyone in the past few decades.
The novel is so dense with descriptions that I was surprised to see that a movie was being adapted from the book. It didn’t look to me like anyone would be able to pull that off, since it would be extremely difficult to translate all of those pages into some sort of visual format with which audiences would be able to relate.
I rented the DVD of the film last night, and I would have to say that they did a very credible job! Some things from the book had to be tossed for the sake of brevity, and the director added a few touches here and there to try and make the main character more appealing, but in general I don’t have any complaints. I particularly liked the way they managed to portray how filthy and stinking those days were, and the sets and cinematography are top notch.
So what is the bottom line?
If you are interested in writing as a craft, in the ways that an author will use a turn of phrase to evoke a sense or setting, then I strongly urge you to read the book.
If you are interested in the story of a perfume making French serial killer in pre-Revolutionary France, then I suggest you save time by renting the DVD and investing 2 1/2 hours of your life.
But, if you are looking for a movie or book with appealing characters, derring do, heroic action, or even just a decent sense of suspense, then I would suggest you look elsewhere.
(Cross posted at Hell in a Handbasket.)