review – El perfume del cardamomo

Andrés Ibáñez is one of Spain’s leading writers of highbrow fantasy fiction. His imaginative resources have been evident since his first novel, La música del mundo (1995), onwards. This unclassifiable work is at once a Bildungsroman, a philosophical treatise about “real” life and its relationship to art, and an intertextual adventure.
El perfume del cardamomo (The Scent of the Cardamom) continues Ibáñez’s practice of constructing imaginary spaces. The novel is not a literary pastiche, as the author is quick to point out in his afterword. The collection’s subtitle, Cuentos chinos, is a Spanish idiom which refers to telling tales, but which the connotation of children’s make-believe, rather than lying. “El puente colgante the Bosha” (Bosha’s Hanging Bridge) presents us with an engineer, a man os science, who cannot see the bridge he built twenty years previously. As another character from the story explains, “Para los antiguos, un puente siempre debía ser un puente invisible. Los arquitectos del emperador no construían un puente hasta que no podían soñarlo”. (For the ancients, a bridge was always to be invisible. The emperor’s architects would not build a bridge until they dreamt of it first). This passage condenses Ibáñez’s ideology: imagination and art are the ways in which we rediscover and better understand the “real”, and which ultimately redefine the place of fantasy in our world.
Other stories – “El tigre y el dragón” (The Tiger and the Dragon), “Mientras dure el sueño” (While the Dream Lasts) – interrogate the delicate boundaries between dream and reality, a theme of Golden Age Spanish literature rediscovered by Ibáñez for a twenty-rist-century readership. There are also tales of thieves, poets, magical foxes, each one of them dreamt up by the author in what he calls his “Chinese voice”. Ibáñez is also a musician, something easily discernible in the cadences of his prose: “Nadie ha visto nunca el amor… Si tiene algún color ha de ser azul sin duda” (No one has ever seen love… If it has a colour, it must of course be blue). Here, and throughout the collection, colours appear as metonymic representations of labyrinthine worlds. The bibliophile pirates in the Borges-inspired “Los piratas de siete colores” (The Pirates of the Seven Colours) discover this to their cost.
This collection can be read as Ibáñez’s personal manifesto against the realism that dominates the Spanish literary market. In the current climate, political considerations are in danger of diminishing artistic alternatives in a country with a rich tradition of literature of the imagination.

published 16th January 2009, The Times Literary Supplement

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