by Patrick Süskind (tr. John E. Woods)

Rating: ★★★★

A delightfully macabre outsider story. Prodigies can make for some of the best biographies because they combine our reverence of excellence with our curiosity -- tinged perhaps with apprehension -- about their foreign nature and almost inhuman viewpoint. The stories you hear about terrifying intellects like von Neumann or Euler, who daunted even the greats of the mathematical and scientific circles in which they moved, often draw on this theme, highlighting their ability to recall arbitrary sequences from long texts at an instant, or dizzying powers of calculation. The idea of the genius serial killer makes for a similar appeal with the mix reversed -- daubs of thrilling danger, with just a hint of appreciation for their abilities. Süskind is working in this same space, here. His offering is a genius not of language, music or mathematics, but the neglected sensory experience: smell.

Süskind balances the view from within and without. The rich sensory experience of the protagonist is brought out in contrast to the uncomprehending aversion he evokes in others, who barely see him. His internal life so vivid that he walks off into the wilderness and lives a scarce, isolated existence in a cave in the wilderness, eating dross and carrion for years, and has the best time of his entire life. He feels no qualms whatsoever about murder carried out in the pursuit of his artistic passion, because he is not comparable to other people, does not really think of them in such terms, and similarly bears all physical hardships with equanimity, because these lesser sensations mean little to him.

His focus makes him great and beautiful, someone who can see something others cannot, who can craft by intuition what others fumble after with heuristics and formulae. He can achieve things others cannot hope to, can find truths others cannot. Yet the other side of this focus is that it affects not only what he can do, but what he values. Just as ordinary people would never devote themselves night and day to a painting, a theorem, a composition, they could never conceive it as right to kill just to further their art, like Grenouille does. Odour is the medium Süskind chose for its originality, and for the richness of language it allows him (and John E. Woods in this translation) to use to colour the story, but this is a story that could apply to all narrow geniuses, all those naturally driven to attempt a masterpiece in a narrow art: they are brilliant, yes, glorious peaks of human diversity, but part of us asks -- are they safe?