The Cathedral of the Sea by Ildefonso Falcones
This book followed on from the immense success of another piece of Barcelona period fiction - Zafon's The Shadow of The Wind - onto the international bestseller list, establishing the emergence of a new wave of extremely popular Spanish hist-lit authors. An epic journey from serfdom to nobility woven around the construction of the magnificent Santa Maria del Mar church in Barcelona, La Catedral del Mar tells the story of Arnau Estanyol, the son of a 14th Century peasant who has fled to the city after falling foul of his evil knight overlord and the insidious medieval rite of intestia. This was where a Lord could do as he wished with a vassell's belongings: including his wife on his wedding night.
Arnau’s turbulent fortunes lead him up from the lowest rung of medieval Catalonian society to nobility, on the way furnishing him with an impressively ridiculous curriculum vitae – stable boy, labourer, sailor, soldier, tinker, money-changer and knight.
Suitably for any self-respecting historical epic hero, his family and amorous fortunes are equally tempestuous. His mother's disappearance and his father’s public execution are followed by a feud with his Inquisition-destined half-brother Joan, and a second marriage of mutual distaste with an ugly noblewoman, bestowed/forced on him by the King in exchange for services in battle.
From laying the first stones of the church as one of its bastaixos (carrying the rocks on his own sweaty back from the quarry at Montjuic – you can see the 'bastaixos' represented in sculptures above the main portal of the church today), such is the ascent of Falcones' hero he goes on to become the church's patron. He also survives the Black Plague, protects the Jewish community from the wrath of rioting Christians, saves Barcelona from an invasion by a foreign fleet and secures more favourable human rights for serfs. He even finds time in his agenda to diddle the Inquisition.
Falcones' style is very much in the commercial Edward Rurtherford (Sarum, The Forest) vein of historical fiction, binding the destinies of several families around that of a significant place or building. The plot grinds over in merciless fashion, turning your brain into medieval jelly with all its bland, generic dialogue, cheesy, rather rushed action sequences and its vaudevillian nobles, bitter clergymen and the whiter-than-white, all-action, God-fearing hero, Arnau.
But where the author, who has a background as a lawyer, actually excels is in his rendering of the ins and outs of 14th century legal and economic life. The textile and money-changing trades of the time are brought to vivid life, as are the minutiae of royal and catholic bureaucracy, and he plunges you headfirst into the nightmarish social limitations and human rights of serfs and artisans.
The chief highlight of the book is its amorous relationship with the church whose construction it chronicles. How it was built, why it was built, who built it. The passionate dedication to the basilica of the Santa Maria del Mar fishermen's cult, who financed and built it, is particularly fascinating.
All in all, it’s an exciting, well-researched tale which brings to life the Catalan Golden Age.