Friday, 10 April 2009

Cathedral of the Sea - Ildefonso Falcones

Read: December 2007

Cathedral of the Sea is at once a work of carefully researched historical fiction and a paean to the Catalan spirit. It is a work dedicated to celebrating the efforts of the humblest of Barcelona’s people who laboured over 54 years in the fourteenth century to build, stone by stone, a magnificent church to overlook their harbour. It stands to this day as a monument to a golden age in Catalan wealth and a symbol of the unflinching identity of the Catalan people. And that is the point in this book; it is a work of populist nationalist celebration. And that is probably why it has sold nearly a million and a half hardbacks since its release.

On the run from a cruel and vindictive feudal lord who raped his wife and abducted his son, Bernat Estanyol heads for Barcelona and the promise of freedom, for it is guaranteed that in Barcelona anyone who resides in the city for a year and a day can be freed from their status as a serf. Seeking refuge in the home of his sister’s husband, Bernat begins work as an unpaid servant in exchange for protection and a future for his son. But when his son, Arnau, is involved in the accidental death of one of the other children they are soon punished and find that freedom from serfdom does not mean freedom from compulsion. For there are many different layers of slavery and those chains may never be broken.

During a famine in the city, Bernat, incites a rebellion for which he is executed leaving Arnau, and his adopted brother Joan to fend for themselves. And so, at the age of fourteen, Arnau joins the Bastaix, a group of manual labourers who load and unload ships. Despite the tremendous physical exertion Arnau loves his work, finds friendship and honour in the Bastaix, and a substitute parent in the form of the Virgin of the Sea. For it is on the Bastaix’s backs that the huge stone blocks used to build the grand church are carried across Barcelona. It is their church, and they are contributing everything they have to building it.

And so, despite famine, plague, thwarted love and war Arnau begins to make his way in the world and when a powerful Jew offers to make him rich as reward for saving his children from a religious lynch mob, Arnau grows successful beyond his wildest dreams. And after his bravery saves Barcelona from invasion the king makes him a Baron and offers his ward Eleanor’s hand in marriage. But Arnau doesn’t love her and despite swearing his eternal fidelity refuses to consummate his marriage and before long he finds that hell hath no fury as that of a woman scorned. Added to which, his democratic and populist actions have made him a great number of powerful enemies only too happy to bring about his devastating fall.

Arnau’s story takes the reader on a journey across all walks of medieval Catalan life, from the poorest rags to riches beyond his wildest dreams. Throughout he struggles against the prejudice and inequality of the feudal system and the absurdity of fundamentalist religion. His is an epic tale of the simplest sort: good versus evil in which the battle lines have been clearly drawn. And throughout the journey the edifice of The Cathedral of the Sea is rising majestically into the sky.

There is so little literary quality to critique here it is impossible to know what to say. The plot rattles along at the speed of light, discordant and basic, the characters are two dimensional, either overly good or ludicrously stroke-my-heavily-waxed-moustache-and-cackle-evilly evil, and the repetitive cycle of plague, famine, war, Inquisition, suffering suffering suffering grows tiring after a while. The author has never learnt that just because you have researched something it doesn’t mean you have to reproduce it all word for word on the page. Maybe this is good historical detail, but I don’t need to read a list of all the different ships being used at the time, the different foods on the table, the different types of material used in building the houses. Cathedral of the Sea may have won prized across Europe but it is not a great book.

And yet where other more lyrically pleasing books often fail to satisfy, somehow Cathedral of the Sea does just that. Reading it is enjoyable, you rattle through the plot and genuinely care about Arnau, no matter how much of a big harmless teddy-bear-esqu saint he is. The plot covers so many different topics – from treason and plague to anti-Semitism and the Inquisition – that there is not a dull page. In scope and epic social proportions it reminds me of Charles Palliser’s stunning Victorian mystery The Quincunx, if it was set in medieval Barcelona and written by Dan Brown. It is not in the same stratosphere of quality as The Quincunx, but then few books are.

In short Cathedral of the Sea is an enjoyable and well researched vision of Catalan history and the people who went to making Catalonia’s unique identity which still survives today. If you read for easy enjoyment then this is the book for you. Do not be put off by the length of this epic novel, there will be no more easily read novel published this year.

5 out of 10

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