The first chapter of this book felt like a piece of music—flutes gently celebrating the wedding of Bernat Estanyol, a Catalonian farmer, and his bride, the lovely Fransesca. Then the approach of the feudal lord Llorenç de Bellera and his riders brings in a discordant note. Finally, there’s a clash of drums and cymbals as all hell breaks loose. And so begins this sprawling saga set in 14th century Catalonia.
This brutal interruption by de Bellera sets the story in motion. He exercises his droit de seigneur but when Francesca’s child Arnau is born, he is quite clearly Bernat’s with the distinctive Estanyol birthmark on his face. De Bellera sees this as an affront to his virility and takes his revenge: he orders Francesca to move to his castle to nurse his son while Arnau is left to starve in the castle’s basement. Bernat breaks in, takes his son, killing one of de Bellera’s men, and flees.
Arnau is the central character of the book, and Ildefonso Falcones uses his life to paint a vivid picture of medieval Catalonia. Bernat seeks refuge in Barcelona with his sister who has married a wealthy tradesman. And that is where Arnau sees the Cathedral of the Sea, which is being built not by some rich lord trying to expiate his sins, but by the people of Barcelona. The cathedral, like the boy, is an integral part of the story and also a symbol of the Catalan people. Like Arnau, the cathedral grows over the course of the book.
I won’t go into all the twists and turns of the plot—I wouldn’t be able to do them justice. The book—which won literary prizes in Spain, Italy and France—covers a lot of ground: the feudal system, politics, wars, finance, Jews, the Inquisition, the situation of women…
There is also a strong sense of Catalan independence, something that obviously hasn’t changed over the years. In their oath of allegiance to the king, the Catalan nobility insist that he is just the first among equals: “We, who are as good as you, swear to your Majesty, who is no better than us, that we will accept you as our king and sovereign”. This resonates throughout the book, as the Catalans refuse to put up with interference from either the king or the Inquisition.
Cathedral of the Sea reminded me of Dickens’s novels in its breadth and the clear demarcation between good and evil: there are not many shades of grey in most of the characters here. The villains are so bad, they had me baying for blood! A more nuanced portrayal of the bad guys might have lent it a little more depth (and been a little less exhausting emotionally!). There is also plenty of melodrama and a fair number of coincidences, something (like the nasty villains) that reminded me also of Hindi films.
But don’t get me wrong—this is a riveting book. I couldn’t put it down and emerged completely shattered from the emotional rollercoaster ride. And the way Falcones weaves a picture of medieval life in Catalonia transported me back in time and gave me an understanding of the history of the region, which is what I expect from a historical novel—that it gives me a feeling of what it must have been like to live in that era. It was quite a journey and one worth taking.