Cathedral of the Sea

Written by Ildefonso Falcones Nick Caistor (trans.)

Set in 14th-century Catalonia, this novel has become a huge bestseller in Spain with translations sold in 32 countries to date. The story of Arnau, the son of an escaped serf, and therefore born into serfdom himself, the novel paints a vivid picture of Spain in the period. Arnau’s father, Bernat, finds refuge in the free city of Barcelona, and it is there that Arnau grows to manhood. It is a long book, however, and I felt that he takes rather too long to grow up. Therefore, the novel loses pace a little in the middle section. But this is a minor quibble. It soon gathers pace again once he is fully grown. Through a combination of hard work and good fortune, he acquires wealth and eventually, as a reward for a daring exploit when Barcelona is under attack from the sea, he is made into a nobleman. But the King forces him into a loveless marriage. And when he frees the serfs on his estates, his fellow nobles are enraged. The climax in which Arnau finds himself arraigned before the Inquisition is superb.

Other themes dealt with are the arrogance and brutality of the nobility, popular prejudices against the Jews, and the relentless persecution of them by the medieval church. Throughout the story is counterpointed by the building of Santa Maria de la Mar (the Cathedral of the title) by the common people of Barcelona.

The story is well told, and the themes nicely handled. It is not difficult to see why the book became a bestseller in Spain. For non-Spanish readers and English speakers in particular, an additional bonus is the light it throws on the situation in Spain at this period, of which I confess I knew little. This is certainly a first rate historical novel.