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This report is taken from PN Review 51, Volume 13 Number 1, September - October 1986.

Letter from Germany Michael Hulse
Three novels published during 1985 - one by a West German, one by an Austrian, one by an East German - show German fiction at mid-decade to have re-appropriated an imaginative vitality which the 1970s, with their emphasis on the how rather than the what of story-telling, came perilously close to forfeiting. One of the three in particular, Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum (Diogenes), refreshingly shows that it is again permitted for a German novel to be novel, to tell a gripping story, and to shade its rhetorical colours through to the deepest of purples, without abandoning its claim to be taken seriously.
 
Das Parfum is the tale of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille - monster, perfumier, outsider and murderer - and follows his biography in straightforward, linear fashion from his birth in 1738 to his death in 1767. The first paragraphs of the novel, in which Grenouille's mother negligently gives birth between serving customers at her fish-stand, drops the baby onto a heap of fish-refuse, and is presently led away to the guillotine to answer for earlier infanticides, already give us the twin poles of Grenouille's life: Süskind dwells with relish on the stenches that beset the nose in eighteenth-century Paris (I take his word for this - his historical milieux are recreated with a light thoroughness that suggests copious research), and emphasizes that the future perfumier is born in the most stinking part of a stinking city. He informs us too that where the market stands is also the site ...


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