Over the past year, I’ve refined my reading habits. For one, I’ve adopted the fifty page rule. If I’m not fully engaged after the first fifty pages, I’m done and move onto another book. I’ve also reduced my consumption of contemporary bestsellers. For every Girl On The Train, there’s a neglected, older gem like Passing by Nella Larsen or Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark that would otherwise go unread. Life is too short to waste on undeserving books. (Ok, in the interest of full disclosure, after reading a couple of heavy weights, I am game for a bit of literary fluff).
Cathedral Of the Sea was an international bestseller. It’s derivative–Ken Follett’s Pillars Of The Earth transported to medieval Barcelona. It’s villains are pure evil. I would say its good guys are paragons of unadulterated virtue, but there is a tad of adultery for which the hero is duly remorseful. It has a huge cast of starving peasants, fanatical friars, prostitutes with hearts of gold, and venal nobles, including one lord who exercises his royal prerogative with a wedding night rape–one of many rapes to occur over the novel’s sixty-year span.
Our hero, Arnau, participates Zelig-like in the major events of fourteenth century Barcelona, and believe it or not, it was an eventful time. Born a serf, Arnau and his father flee to Barcelona. Bernat works in a pottery, then as a groom, before he’s hung for his participation in bread riots. Arnau is captivated by the construction of the titular cathedral, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Mar. The cathedral’s construction began in 1329 and continued through 1383. He joins the bastaixos or porters who carry the stones for the cathedral from nearby quarries.
In time, Arnau becomes a soldier in the wars of Pedro III, King of Aragon; money-exchanger; and maritime insurer. He protects Jews from a pogrom that began when the story spreads that Jews are responsible for the epidemic of bubonic plague. The Barcelona massacre was one of multiple massacres of Jews during the plague years. He befriends Moors. He saves the city from a naval assault by Pedro the Cruel, King of Castile. This engagement actually occurred and saw the first use of naval artillery. Success breeds enmity, and Arnau becomes a target of the Inquisition (this was the medieval inquisition, not the notorious Spanish Inquisition established a century later).
Falcones’ efforts to cram in every notable event of the century–the wars, the building of the Cathedral, the attacks on Jews during the plague years, the manipulations of the Inquisition, and the workings of the guilds–feels contrived although his attention to detail is admirable. Nonetheless, I’m working to eliminate pulp from my literary diet. No second chance to Cathedral of the Sea.