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.