A Review of ‘Cathedral of the Sea’ by Ildefonso Falcones

When I first moved to Barcelona, the first thing I obviously did was to look for books set in the city and go around looking for them in the city’s network of libraries and that is how I landed up this with this book. Set in 13th century Catalonia, Cathedral of the Sea documents the life of Arnau Estañyol and his family with the building of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Mar forming the backdrop of the story.

Arnau, the son of a run-away serf grows up in the city of Barcelona with his father. As a child, when he asks his father where his mother was, his father tells him that the Virgin of the Sea was his mother and that she would be with him through his thick and thin. This gets deeply ingrained into the child’s imagination and he starts noticing the image of the Virgin smile at him with compassion and love every time he approaches her for succour.

Taking a few steps back, let us look at the lives of serfs in medieval Europe. Most of them are indentured for generations and despite having the freedom of owning lands, they are not allowed to dispose of them as they please. They are forced to pay for tithes and taxes to their feudal lord for almost nothing in return and are expected to fight and die for the lords when he decides to call his banner-men. The lords are usually brutes drunk on power who invoke the ‘Prima Nocta’ when it fancies them and are usually above even the kings dictum because how is the king going to enforce his rule so far away from his court.

In this book and also may be in real life, any serf who would run away from their indenture and survive in the free city of Barcelona for a year and a day would be emancipated from their serfdom. As the father and the son bide their time in the city of Barcelona, a series of events plunges the city into acute food shortages and pushes the father to the edge who incites a mob to storm the sheriff’s palace to steal grain. This results in the kid being orphaned as the father is now executed for his crimes.

The first act of divine providence I see in this book where the guild of ‘bastaixos’ or porters of La Ribera adopt the child into their guild as an apprentice and teach him their trade. I call this divine providence because the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Mar was being rebuilt by all the guilds of the neighbourhood and Arnau would offer water to the bastaixos as they carried carried loads of stone from Montjuic on their backs as a service to their Virgin.

The second act of divine providence happens during an anti Semitic riot in Barcelona when Arnau rescues two children and their family’s moorish slave from the carnage and hides them in a niche under the Cathedral. The family then repays his kindness by helping him setup a thriving moneylending business. With a lot of help from Sahat the moorish slave he rescued, Arnau becomes one of the richest and also the most respected money-lenders in town and Sahat very prudently also diversifies into other businesses eventually Arnau being elected as one of the counsels of the sea and accidentally getting married into royalty.

If you think this is where the story ends and every one lives happily ever after, I am afraid that is not the case and we have a lot more of drama to wade through. The third and final act of the story happens to be the final valley in Arnau’s fortunes and life where he loses everyone around him and everything he has earned to the level of being arrested by the Spanish Inquisition. To summarise his perils, I would like to quote Monty Python here, ‘Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition’. This is where the third act of divine providence kicks in and the entire city rises up in revolt against the inquisition rallying to the cries of ‘Via Fora’ rescuing their beloved counsels of the sea and this is where the actual happy ending happens.

Ildefonso Falcones is probably not the greatest writer and nor is the “Cathedral of the Sea” the greatest piece of fiction set in Barcelona and yet you will agree with me, if you have read the book, when I say that this book is well paced and is extremely cinematic. After a very long time, a 500+ page non Ken Follet book held onto my attention and propelled me to finish reading it in a span of mere 5 days.

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