Cathedral of the Sea by Ildefonso Falcones
There are lots of good things about Cathedral of the Sea: It's engaging, but not engrossing, readable and atmospheric, creating a sense of medieval Spain, and Barcelona in particular, with the first few chapters, a sense which is sustained to final page. But there are lots of bad things about this book too which, for me, detracted so much from the reading experience as to undermine the whole.
The narrative is plot driven, relating the life story of Arnau, son of a runaway serf made good, but the detailed descriptions of battles in particular and the lecture-like accounts of Spanish histories which pepper the novel are so turgid that the plot falls flat at times. Most of the characters are so under-developed that at times it is hard to understand their motivations or emotions, and Arnau, the central character, who is likeable enough, seems to suffer from having things done to him rather than having any sense of taking control, or responsibility, for his own life: strange in one who's professed desires include freedom and justice. While the author is at pains to display his intimate knowledge of medieval Barcelona, he seems to know very little of ways in which the renaissance, the reformation or industrialisation have changed the human psyche. Thus, we seem to have a series of characters who, with the exception of Arnau, seem more like 21st century inhabiting a time past, rather than being part of the fabric of their context.
And yet, and yet, the relationship which Arnau forges with the Cathedral of the Sea - the church of Santa Maria de lar Mer, the building of which takes place during his lifetime, is fascinating - and even more so is the range of emotions he feels towards the Virgin of Sea who becomes his mother, his guide, his strength and his inspiration. And this is the real meat of the novel - delectable and nourishing. Shame there wasn't quite enough of it to mask the taste of the turgid narrative.
I bought this book on the recommendation of an eager bookshop salesman. I knew it had sold millions of copies in Spain and Italy, and the bookstore in Rome's main railway station is pushing it (in both Italian and English). It is, alas, a novel written by a Catalan lawyer in his spare time, and it reads like it. The prose is pedestrian throughout, with almost no variation in tone; there is little if any character development, and the narrative is of the "A did X, B thought Y, they stared at each other, then were friends for 50 years" school. Wholly without literary imagination. The "story" (details of which you can see in many other reviews) is interesting enough to keep one's attention, but only just. Some of it is simply naive good v. evil stuff; in what seems to be an imposition of 21st Century political correctness on mediaeval Barcelona, one of the most important characters is a Moorish slave of surpassing virtue and generosity, likewise the Jewish characters are entirely sympathetic, treated as paragons. While one can applaud the effort to present Moors and Jews positively for a change, the presentation is so simplistic and kack-handed here that one is immediately aware of what the author is doing with them. Like other reviewers, I had to make several attempts to finish the book. There is a plethora of historical "detail" but I found myself just skimming this, presented as it is in laundry-list fashion. In an effort to achieve verisimilitude, Falcones inserts into the narrative long lists of names of knights or barons of mediaeval Catalonia, never to be mentioned again. He says in his Afterword that the broad historical events (not the details of Arnau's life) are based on chronicles of the time, which presumably were his source for the roll-call of princes, barons etc. I took this book on holiday and so felt a certain compulsion to finish it, but my advice to a potential purchaser would be don't waste your time: there are thousands of other books out there that are far better written, more believable narratives.
This novel is an enjoyable read. A pleasant epic that quickly sets you into the mood of medieval Spain, and a leisurely setting up of what is to follow but it is well woven into the plot that by the end of the third chapter you are well under way. The historical setting is laid out beautifully, from the geography to the political infrastructure and the way this is conveyed is truly awe-inspiring. Yet, the story is bleak. It begins somewhat depressingly and throughout the story just as there appears to be some good fortune for the main character all is conspired against him. The medieval setting is described throughout wonderfully but due to the political infrastructure demonstrated throughout, things can only get worse.
It may sound somewhat pompous but I mean it when I say that this novel is multi-layered. The main character, Arnau, is us the modern reader. His attitudes and aspirations are a wonderful mixture of liberalism, Marxism and post-modernism. Something of a rich mixture but all that makes sense within the realm of the book. His attitude toward the nobles, certainly from my point-of-view is Marxist. Bourgeoisie and proletarian: the main narrative of the story is the idea of the working class ridding their shackles of their "Noble" masters. Furthermore, Arnau's rise in power via his own choice is post-modern: he chooses his identity. He is the individual that we are supposed to aspire to be. As Arnua represents our modern ideals we empathise with what he tries to do throughout the novel and yet, because of this, we are constantly reminded that his attitudes are anachronistic as such there is an impending sense of doom throughout as he can only fail--mainly in the face of human greed which is established throughout as a domineering and truly repulsive human emotion that can only destroy all that surrounds it yet leave its own ugly mirrored features surviving.
The novel does have an epic quality and there are glimpses of multi-levelled intelligence throughout yet some aspects fall short. For example, I found the way women were portrayed was unsatisfactory. For a large section of the book I was struck by how negatively I felt toward most, if not all, of the female characters. They are either far too weak (a Mother does not strive to escape out of a nasty predicament she has found herself in and later staves herself to death when she finds that her son has found happiness--she feels as though she is no longer needed, which strikes me as totally weird) or are total bitches: in each case they are two dimensional and not much is really given for their motives. However, this could be excused for the historical setting, in which women were very much seen as second-class citizens--women who were raped were forced to marry their rapists: the novel can be truly shocking at times.
Therefore, this is rather a strange book to recommend. It is certainly patchy; with allot wrong with it yet there are truly wondrous moments that do keep you griped. In short, read this book and you will enjoy most of it and will finish feeling that it was a satisfactory read and yet conversely, don't read and you won't be missing much. It really depends on your reading style: if you enjoy multi-levelled narrative then this is for you and if you don't then you won't get much out of this as the simple aspects of this novel will make you feel short-changed.
on 22 January 2010
One of the great canards of medieval life that have been promoted to outraged titillation in the world of entertainment is the putative droit du seigneur, the right of a feudal lord to bed the wives of his serfs on their wedding night. There is almost no evidence that such a right ever existed in law, though it is undeniable that serfs were abused and their wives very likely forced into granting sexual favours. Still, this is a favourite trope among writers of historical fiction (equally, directors of films set in the Middle Ages), and Ildefonso Falcones in his Cathedral of the Sea proves no different. Perhaps, though, we should believe Falcones - he is, after all, a lawyer himself, and he quotes Catalan legal documents (the Usatges) that purport to grant such rights. The novel, a sweeping history of the construction of the magnificent Cathedral of Santa María del Mar by indigent labourers as an act of love and devotion, starts with the violation of a woman on the night of her wedding. The story then follows the fortunes of the woman's husband, and then their son, against the background of the rise of Barcelona's maritime power. It is a gripping tale, incorporating miracles, internecine feuds, pogroms against Jews, naval battles, detailed explanations of construction techniques, sex and strife between diabolically devious women and inhumanly good men, envy between brothers, religious schisms, class struggles, and, if all this were not enough, the Inquisition. I'm well pleased with this, especially because there was nary a mention of the Templars.
In a sweeping epic covering 63 years in the 14th Century Falcones ensures that we never lose sight of his real intention, a love of the ordinary Catalans, and their majestic Santa Maria Del Mar, truly an awe inspiring sight on the interior, if not exterior.
The central character from the story makes his first appearance as a new born and the story carries through to the completion of the cathedral, the two linked if not totally parrallel stories tied neatly at each section. The sections, all linked by a "chained to.." metaphor, cover the character Arnau's development and growth from slave like serf, through various stages to old age as a respected and revered member of the guild of Bastaix, or porters guild.
The story in itself is lightweight, covering the injustices suffered by the poor, food shortages, the plague, petty Royal conflicts, trade, the inquisition and love, in all its forms. What lets the story down is an inevitability to it all. You can guess what is going to happen from the less than subtle plot turns. Arnau himself is more of a cypher than a real person, even at his most passionate his loves and loathings seem almost stylized with no real fire involved.
What Falcones does convey, admirably, is a love, deepfelt and honest, for the ordinary people of Barcelona. A people often proud and independent to the point of obstinancy, and here he gives voice to the reasons for those passions. In a world dominated by the nobility and the church, which he clearly despises, he nevertheless manages to show a love for the Church of the title, Santa Maria Del Mar.
In this he is to be commended, but the lack of pace and any real dimensions to the characters is what lets this book down. If you're looking for something to read in Catalunya this will do nicely. However if you're looking for a good novel, look elsewhere.
on 8 March 2010
If you're hovering over this book in two minds I'd say go for it! I took a chance on it and finished it in three days flat. I loved it! And for lots of reasons: its evocative, accessible, well paced, and dramatic! I can't really understand many of the criticisms people have levelled against it on here. The characters are 2D- this novel is set in mediaeval times when peoples roles and ideals were intense and starkly drawn more than nuanced, ironic or fashionable. The language is flat- well, Falcones is perhaps not the world's best lyricist but this use of language suits the direct and workmanlike protagonists. The plot sags in the middle- it certainly does not, for each piece fits into the next and this carries. Actually I found this worked very well, as even when it seemed nothing was happening I felt certain that something- who knew what- was building up, and so it proved! The history is obscure and badly worked into the story....again I don't feel this: all of the legalities and politics mentioned are related directly to the plot and I feel give the story depth and realism and status, relating it to such wonderfully named monarchs as Pedro the Cruel! I found it fascinating! And please, why are people saying its a Spanish story? Its most definitely more a Catalan one! I loved the warm and clearly drawn world Ildefonso Falcones creates- its not poetry but its good story telling!
I have had this book since before Christmas and am kicking myself for not picking it up before but its door stop size and length, over 650 pages, waas somewhat daunting and I had a feeling that once I started this story I would not be able to put it down, so had better have plenty of time to devote to it. I have spent the last two weeks reading it in the evening after work as it it too heavy to cart on my daily commute to London, but in the end I took it with me as I could not leave it behind.
The story is set in 14th century Spain and Bernat and his son Arnau are two serfs on the run from their feudal lord who had stolen Bernat's wife on his wedding night and taken his lands. They flee to Barcelona where if they stay hidden for a year and a day, they will become free men. As a young boy Arnau discovers and finds fascinating The Cathedral of the Sea, a wonderful new church being built in honour of the Virgin, for the people by the people. As Arnau grows up, he becomes a bataix, one of a band of men who carry stones from the quarry to the church to help in its building. Here he finds refuge and love and a place which will become central to his life.
I am not going to give all the details of the story, it would take too long and this review would go on for ever. Suffice it to say, it is a truly magical book and the story of Arnau's journey from slave to nobleman is written on a truly epic scale. As he becomes successful and rich and loved by his fellow citizens in Barcelona, there are those who are jealous of him and who would bring about his downfall. One of these is his very own wife, Eleonor, given to him by the king as a reward for his bravery in battle and who hates him for his indifference to her. It is the time of the Spanish Inquisition where a denouncement can lead to a supposed heretic hauled before the Inquisitors and find that he loses not only his possessions which are taken by the church, but his life also, and Eleonor is determined to revenge herself on her husband.
I felt that a bit of judicious editing would have tightened the book up a bit as I felt it lost momentum about two thirds through, but then it picked up pace and the last third is nail biting stuff. A terrific story and highly recommended.
Just make sure you have plenty of free time when you open it at page one that is all I can say
on 12 June 2009
I am shocked by many of the reviews. This is not a great book. It is not written to be a great book of prose. It is a wonderful gripping story that is full of interesting nuggets about life in a time which is very difficult if not impossible for us to understand today. The book can be read on two levels; the history and the story. You can ignore the backdrop and float along with the absorbing story, but that would be a shame. I simply loved the book and feel that I have learnt and experienced something that a history book could never achieve. Yes, it's written by a lawyer, but it's that special insight that makes the story compelling and (just about!) plausible. If you like reading Sansom (Revelation, Dissolution) you will enjoy this book.
on 1 October 2012
I picked up this well crafted historical epic masterpiece at a charity shop and am so thrilled that I did. It is passionate and beautiful, inspiring , uplifting and heartbreaking, with a strong feel for 14th century Catalonia at the height of the Inquisition
Arnau Estanyol is the son of a fugitive serf who acquires freedom, wealth and a high status through the help of his Jewish benefactor Hasdai Crescas and the Moorish slave he is given to him, Guillem, after the rescues Hasdai's three young children and the slave from a mob which has attacked the Jewry in Barcelona in a bloodthirsty pogrom caused by a blood libel. He achieves great military success against the attacking ships of the enemy king of Castille, and is elevated to the nobility while being forced marry the ward of the King, Eleanor who he does not love, as his heart belongs to the enchanting girl he adopted after the death of her parents, the attractive and lively Mar.
Arnau is betrayed by his adopted brother Joan, who has become a cruel and narrow-minded inquisitor , who together with the evil Eleanor plan and execute the kidnap, rape and forced marriage of Mar. Arnau falls foul of the inquisition, and the author gives a great insight into the machinations of the Spanish Inquisition, and it's purge of Jews and 'Heretics'
Meanwhile two women who have been earlier in their lives forced into prostitution, Arnau's mother (unbeknown to him) Francesca and Arnau's first love the alluring and goodhearted Aledis. I like his sympathetic portrayal of the prostitutes, and his reminder to us that often it is many whores who's hearts are much bigger than those of the the saints. The book is lingeringly erotic in parts SPOILER WARNING
Together with Mar and Guillem they rescue Arnau from death at the hands of the inquisition
This book is not only a real page turner, of which the last 150 pages are particularly enthralling but an analysis of historical events including the Inquistion and anti-Semitism, society and human nature.
on 2 July 2011
Let's begin by saying that Cathedral of the Sea is satisfying just because, as someone would expect, our hero goes from rags to riches and succeeds in avenging several bad things that happened to him or to the people he loves.
No surprises there. We all want, deep inside, a story where the bad guys get humiliated and the good guy gets the money and the girl.
As several other people wrote, the problem is that Arnau, the main protagonist, just has stuff happening to him. He deserves good luck but that's an awful good luck that's thrown at him. He gets money out of nowehere, benefactors out of nowhere,whenever there's a crisis coming you dont worry about a thing, it's just like in some films where you know that the protagonist will never die because of some deus ex machina.
Medieval Barcellona's description was quite interesting but it's not enough. I really felt that the second half of the book wasnt very interesting and young Arnau was way more interesting than older, richer Arnau. Also, many of the characters were one dimensional, their motivations were mostly "I hate Arnau" or "I will help Arnau even if it costs my life", and some of them who seemed rather important will just fade away.
This book was pumped as the new Pillars of the Earth but doesnt even come near Follet's book. I dont regret reading it (it was a long train trip) but dont think I ll read anything else by this author.