Cathedral of the Sea: Ildefonso Falcones

Like Per Olov Enquist’s Visit of the Royal Physician, Ildefonso Falcones’s historical novel Cathedral of the Sea has won a veritable bouquet of prizes both in its native Spain, where it enjoyed immense success, and in other European countries. Like The Visit of the Royal Physician, however, it left me cold. In fact, I am willing to go further in this instance and to say that this is a very disappointing book. Had I not felt honour-bound to finish it, I would have put it aside after the first hundred pages. As it was, I forced myself through to the end. I’m going to try to keep this post brief because, while I’m more than happy to write long effusive reviews of books I like, I see no virtue in dwelling on negativity. Suffice it to say I won’t be recommending it to anyone.

The book is set in fourteenth-century Barcelona, where the fugitive serf Bernat Estanyol and his infant son Arnau – on the run from their overbearing lord – come to seek shelter with his sister and her husband, the successful potter Grau Puig. The book follows Arnau’s story as he grows to manhood in this vibrant mercantile city, and it takes its name from the church of Santa Maria del Mar, which undergoes an extensive rebuilding project, beginning when Arnau is only a small boy and growing with him until, as an elderly man, he can witness its consecration. Arnau is entirely devoted to the church and its Virgin from a young age, when he naively adopts the Virgin Mary as a substitute mother for the one he has lost. As he grows older, he expresses his commitment by joining the guild of the bastaixos – the port workmen who carry the heavy blocks of building stone from the King’s quarries to the church itself, as an act of devotion and love. Over the coming years this faith and loyalty to the church will give him an anchor in a life full of trials, not least among which is the growing antipathy of his Puig cousins, who are determined to do all they can to undermine this upstart son of a serf, but which also include war, the moral and financial challenges of business, the Inquisition and the Black Death.

Despite the very adult nature of the book’s opening chapters – droit de seigneur, rape, general misery – the style of the writing is peculiarly naive. In the section dealing with Arnau’s childhood it reads exactly like a children’s novel, with a complete lack of interest in psychological complexity and a penchant for unrealistic events (like the immediate lifelong friendship between Arnau and Joanet; or the impoverished Bernat’s unquestioning adoption of Joanet). Throughout the whole book, I found the style pedestrian, stilted and dull. Of course, in such situations I always have to consider that it may be the result of an awkward translation, but Heloise has kindly confirmed that the German translation is equally uninspiring, which suggests to me that we must look to the source.

As readers, we are always told what is happening rather than shown; we are faced with characters whose conversations, more often than not, are simply infodumps about Catalan history; and the characters themselves have all the depth and charisma of cardboard cut-outs. The nobles are universally wicked, cruel and conniving. The treatment of the female characters was particularly infuriating. Regardless of the endemic misogyny of the 14th century, Falcones gives no indication that his women are living, thinking, independent human beings who simply have the misfortune to live in an unenlightened age. They are all, almost literally, angels or whores. I wasn’t sure whether or not I was meant to feel sorry for the unfortunate Aledis, whose sole youthful ambition is to see men wallowing in desire for her, and who taunts Arnaud by walking around with her breasts stuck out (there is a particularly awful simile comparing her nipples to crossbow bolts; I wish I was making that up, but I’m not). And virtually all female characters have ghastly ends: as a woman, you’ll be lucky to get through this novel without being raped, kidnapped, tortured by the Inquisition  selling yourself as a whore, dying of the plague, or being loathed by your adulterous husband for the simple reason that you’re too good for him. (Pause for breath.)

The result was that, ultimately, I just didn’t care about any of the characters. As our protagonist, Arnau shows a worrying lack of initiative: his life follows a path set out by other people, who take him into their guild or their family, suggest career moves and rescue him when necessary. For Aledis, see above. For all his youthful charm, Joanet turns into a sanctimonious monster. The only character for whom I felt any warmth whatsoever was Mar, who proved to be pleasantly feisty despite the ill-treatment meted out to her by men. It was just a crying shame that a novel with so much potential turned out to be so underwhelming. I don’t even feel better informed about Barcelona’s history, because towards the end I’m afraid I just switched off during the long, staged conversations about recent political events. And yet, to be fair, I have to say there was one scene I did enjoy and which I thought was beautifully handled; and that was the scene where the young Arnau carries his first block of stone down from the quarry to Santa Maria del Mar, struggling every step of the way, but determined to triumph, cheered on in the final stages by the townspeople and builders who have followed him to give him moral support. That gave me a flash of what the book might have been.

I hope Isi reads this, because I’d be very interested to find out whether she knows the Spanish version and whether perhaps it comes across better in the original language. If anyone else has read it, please do share your thoughts with me. I know that many people do admire the book, going by reviews on Amazon and LibraryThing, and I’m genuinely sorry that I can’t be one of the many people who’ve loved it and contributed to its pan-European success. But I am determined to always be honest about what I like and don’t like, and I’m afraid that this one will not be making it into my personal Hall of Fame.

The only reason I can possibly see to read it would be if you’re going on holiday to Barcelona and want to learn more about the city’s medieval history (alternative historical fiction about medieval Barcelona must be fairly thin on the ground). But, if you just want to read a book about the building of a church and the frictions of a medieval community, please, do yourself a favour and buy The Pillars of the Earth instead.

Buy the book. But don’t say I didn’t warn you

10 thoughts on “Cathedral of the Sea: Ildefonso Falcones

  1. Isi says:

    Isi is reading this, indeed! 🙂

    Well, first of all, an advert: if you ever come to Spain, don't say a word about how little you liked this book! hehe

    I have read the book years ago, and I liked it very much. This book was a best-seller in my country when it was launched and I think I'm not wrong in saying every single person has read it too (and liked it).
    Nevertheless, I perfectly undestand why you didn't like it and I think that if I read it now, I wouldn't like it either. By that time I hadn't read so much historical novels, perhaps only The pilars of the Earth (a book I loved), so I suppose that both the genrte and the setting (in Spain) impressed me in a good way.
    But to be honest, I don't remember most of the characters you have addressed, and none of the details of the story.

    But I really think that most of the historical fiction novels have a lack of good characters. Even in Ken Follett's books, the good characters are soooo good and you know they will suffer a little during the story but they will success at the end, and the bad ones are so evil and they will end dying, in prison, etc.

    Years after the launching of this book, the author wrote another titled “La mano de Fátima” (Fátima's hand) about Moors and Christians, and everybody bought it, of course, but this was absolutely boring; the same as “The cathedral of the sea”, but with other characters, so the author's popularity is not as much as time before and I promised myself not to read any book of him anymore (La mano de Fátima has 1,000 pages and I just wanted to die when I was reading such a boring and loong book).

    So well, if you want any recommendation of a Spanish author that I'm sure you will like it, just tell me!! I have to say that my favourite Spanish books are set in the Civil War period, and even thought it's not as picturesque as Middle Age, it's also interesting 🙂

  2. Isi says:

    I forgot to say that I don't think it's because the translation: I remember it like a light reading in terms of language, so yes, it's quite simple.

  3. The Idle Woman says:

    Yay – I thought you would read it, but I wanted to let you know that I very much wanted your opinion on this, because I know how popular it was when it was first published. And it's a deal: when I next come to Spain, I promise I won't mention this book at all for fear of being lynched. I will just talk very loudly about how awesome Captain Alatriste is, and hope they'll let me get away with it. 🙂

    I really enjoyed The Pillars of the Earth and its sequel, and I think I expected this to be as gripping as that; although I agree with your point that the characters in Pillars were either good or evil, and got their comeuppance in a non-entirely-realistic way (it's so much more interesting when they're more complicated characters!). I do think it's great, however, that historical fiction is being written about this period in Spain. My knowledge of medieval Spain, beyond the legend of the Cid, is very poor and it's great to have even a little more information. How interesting to hear about 'La mano de Fátima' – I haven't heard of this one and, following your comments, I don't think I'll worry too much about it. 1,000 pages – good heavens!

    Please, please, do recommend some other books. I'm always looking for new things to read and I don't know enough works by Spanish authors (except the usual suspects: Borges, Perez-Reverte, Carlos Ruiz Zafon etc.).

    And I would just like to make a blanket apology to any other Spanish readers: I don't mean to criticise your taste; it's just that I personally didn't like this very much. I welcome debate 🙂

  4. Isi says:

    I haven't felt criticised 😉 It's just that not everybody likes the same books!

    But yes, I found the book enjoyable but at that time I hadn't read so many books like that. Now I have read several historical fiction novels by Spanish authors and I usually find them very similar to each other.

    For example, I didn't like A world without end as good as The pillars, because both are very similar. But The pillars, what a book! I read it twice and prior Philip is one of my favourite characters ever 🙂

    Recommendations:
    – The frozen heart, by Almudena Grandes
    – In the night of time, by Antonio Muñoz Molina

    Both about the civil war. Highly recommended.

  5. The Idle Woman says:

    Phew; I was beginning to think it was just me! And I value your opinion in particular on such matters, so I'm glad to hear you had the same kind of reaction as I did. I hadn't heard of The Hand of Fatima until Isi mentioned it, but since then Amazon has recommended it to me and so I very firmly said 'no thanks'. 🙂

  6. RT says:

    Very interested to read your review cos I agree wholeheartedly! I was keen to read the book because it was set in my favourite period and in one of my favourite cities (I lived in Barcelona for 6 months) but found it utterly dull and lifeless. Have read some of the Spanish text too and the translation is a pretty faithful reflection of the original style. However, The Hand of Fatima is worse…so you are right to avoid it! I don't imagine Doubleday will publish his third novel.

  7. the Mond says:

    I've just read this book, recommended to me by my uncle who loved it. I think it is mainly because he is a Catholic and this has so much Catholicism, it must've felt like another service. However, the depiction of life under a religious prevalence is not very encouraging, have to say.

    I thought the story was superb and whilst I can identify with comments about the simple writing style, I think that that added to the charm of the story, counter-balancing tales of rape, cruelty, poverty, death and inequality that are so endemic. The story is a tour de force and I didn't get bored through the long story at all. It was shocking what happens to the women but I think criticism of that from this blogger is perhaps encouraged by her inability to throw off her 21st century, post-feminist derision of men and all they might have been capable of in past days. I thought Aledis stayed strong despite her ordeals and it was refreshing (dare I suggest that?) that the women could be strong enough to build/continue with their lives where today women are positively encouraged to be collapse into desperate maudlin despair after sexual assaults far less savage than that. Of course, this is just a book, not real life but there are various ways of overcoming adversity, not only the one advocated by political correctness.

    I thought overall, it was a horrifically enjoyable read and i definitely would recommend others reading it.

  8. The Idle Woman says:

    Thank you, 'the Mond', for offering another take on the book. I think it's valuable to have different opinions and I'm fully aware that many people may well like the things which I don't enjoy so much. I hope my fellow book-lovers feel that this is a welcoming and comfortable place where they can share their opinions, whatever those might be, without judgement. Despite your comments, I'm afraid that I'm going to have to stick with my original position: that, for me, the writing and characterisation was very poor; but I know that there are lots of different views out there. The book has been incredibly successful, after all, which means that lots of people have found things to enjoy in it that unfortunately just didn't quite do it for me.

    I'm amused by the notion that I have a '21st century, post-feminist derision of men'. Do I really? That'll come as a shock to my friends and family. Still, if you get that impression from my blog then it must mean my constant gushing about Spartans, Vikings and rapier-wielding swashbucklers isn't quite as overwhelming as I feared it might be. That's a relief.

    Glad to hear that both you and your uncle enjoyed the novel, and I wish you both happy reading in the future.

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