Cathedral of the Sea–Abandoned!

By Ildefonso Falcones

I stopped reading this book at page 252 of 603–I read through chapter 25 of 60. I gave this book an honest try. Let me tell you up front that it is not about a cathedral. That is, in the entire first half of the book there are only incidental references to a cathedral. The building of said cathedral, the Santa Maria del Mar…

…would probably make a very exciting story, especially if it was built in only half a century. The rise of a serf to nobility would probably make a very exciting story, if it were told better. Alack and alas, this historical fiction novel has too little of the former and too much of the latter. This book is not the new Pillars of the Earth, and if Ildefonso Falcones is the new Ken Follet, he has earn the reputation with a different book. I’m not even sure that Ken Follet is the new Ken Follet. I haven’t read much of his stuff, so Pillars could be a fluke, but it rises above this book like cream in a churn. OK, that metaphor breaks down. And Pillars has its share of problems and plot lines I just don’t read anymore. But there are things wrong with Cathedral’s story that cannot be blamed on the translator.

I certainly have made no attempt to read this book in its original language, and I have no idea how well the translation preserves its original rhythm and/or lyrical qualities. Reviewers on Amazon have said it is a good translation and it may very well be. It is certainly a well-written translation. There is nothing wrong with the English sentences, and the language doesn’t set out to be particularly literary, so I’m not worried about crucial imagery related to theme being botched. I’m far more worried about lack of theme, character development, and pacing problems.

First. There is not nearly enough dialogue. This book is mostly telling and not showing, and the author gets lazy by just suddenly inserting a line that is a sentence thought by a character explaining to him or herself his or her motivations for performing the act that he or she is about to perform. There is too much explanation right before said act about all the historical factors that contribute to the decisions made this particular representative of a social class right before the representative of the social class–I mean, character–makes it. The characters in this book aren’t characters. They are stand-ins. There is the childless old couple whose hearts are warmed. There is the temptress who discovers the power her sexuality gives her over men. There is the traumatized rape victim who becomes a kindly prostitute. There is the indignant serf who will live free or die. There is the orphan making his father proud. There is the urchin who becomes a scholar. There is the young man who proves his strength to his mentors. There is the kindly priest. There is the vindictive and terrorizing nobleman. There is the evil stepmother.

The book started well. There was a happy wedding party that brought together a community, an example of a prosperous farm and decent people coping with their involuntary bonds to the landed gentry. The terrorizing nobleman shows up and wrecks everything, which is sort of a stock plot element (yeah, yeah–I know that it happened in history and that prima notte or whatever the Latin was one of those offenses that was not to be borne), but it provided the characters involved the chance to react. I thought the opening chapters had some fantastic storytelling. The bride withdraws into herself, and the father takes on the tasks of nurturing the baby. It’s not something you see a lot–the joy of a father in an infant, and contented pastoral scenes. The parts where he loses his son and wife to the castle and the parts where he reclaims the baby are very moving, and the parts where he flees to the city and asks for refuge from his sister are interesting. The sister and her husband and the workshop is very interesting, and well-written, and well-characterized. Everything in this book is pretty good, until that cousin dies. Then everyone turns into gears to grind out a plot and I started losing interest fast. My hands turned into gears to just flip pages.

I don’t know why the author changes courses like this. The history of the era, at this point, overwhelms the literature. There are reviews online from people who love the book because it’s about Barcelona, and because Barcelona is practically a character in the novel. Well, it’s not. The novel is set in Barcelona, but because the characters aren’t feeling and doing things in the city that are natural and authentic (authentic to life and relationships, that is), it really could be happening anywhere. Mentioning landmarks is just another example of how the author is really just making a list of objects and characters that belong in a book set in this place at that time for this genre. Lets consider the pottery workshop. A lot of time is spent at the start of the book developing the pottery workshop, but the characters leave and although some of the people from the pottery workshop reappear, they are no longer even associated with the pottery workshop. I am hoping that the guy who buys the pottery workshop reappears later in the book, if only to provide some essential service to the hero (stock element, stock character), because otherwise there was no point in going there. If the book is supposed to be about building a cathedral, why not have the sister married to a craftsman working on the cathedral? Then you won’t waste so much plot and character development on a setting and family that has no purpose.

Of course, then you’d be ripping off Pillars exactly.

I guess I just don’t know what this book is about. Is it about the church? No. There is very little about the crafting of the church, or descriptions of what the site or the structure looks like. Is it about the worker’s guild that finances and supports the church–the bastaixos? No. Some of those people show up in the book, and the main character Arnau works as one, but (I cheated) his main story arc is to leave their ranks and make a better life for himself. The other bastaix are filler and decoration. Is it about some peasant who becomes a nobleman? Maybe. Then why isn’t he given more to say and more chances to shine without the author telling the reader how to react to him all the time? Is it to show off how much research the author has done on the time period? Seems like it.

I’m all for heavily symbolic titles. To finish my MA I had to sit for a written exam, in which I wrote this impromptu kick-ass essay (if I may boast a little) about the significance of the bear in the Faulkner short story “The Bear,” even though no bears were really present in the story as characters. The bear was the single element against which all other characters reacted. Their response to this abstraction revealed personality features and relationship dynamics. The essay was shredded after being evaluated, which is necessary for their MA program I guess but which also broke my heart, but that’s beside the point. This novel, Cathedral of the Sea, could have been a very good book without actually having a cathedral in it at all. Arnau, the protagonist, has a special relationship with the Virgin Mary (to whom the church is dedicated), and that could have been explored much, much better–even during his fairy-tale rise from rags to riches. I’m not against a Cinderella story–I’m really not. But you have to care. I don’t care.

But all this I could have put up with. All of it. This is what got me, though:

pg. 242
Aledis gives this pretty speech to Arnau that no person would ever say to another, so it’s stilted dialogue. Plus the paragraph provides in two sentences a trite explanation to the reader why she is fooling around with Arnau. “Everyone would know what had gone on between us. It would mean your downfall: they would expel you from the guild, and probably from the city as well. Then you would only have me; I would be the only one willing to follow you. My life makes no sense without you; otherwise I’m condemned to live my days alongside an old, obsessed man who cannot satisfy me in any way.”

You know what? If you’d actually developed these characters and these relationships, we’d be able to see why exposing the affair would cause these dramatic outcomes. We’d be able to understand why Aledis is risking her life for Arnau, and why Arnau is risking his career for her. But, nope! The author spoonfeeds us information, and he wastes one of his few lines of dialogue on it. EVEN THEN you still aren’t sure what Aledis considers “meaning.” To this point, she’s just horny. Does she love Arnau or does she love controlling him or does she just love getting off?

pg. 251-252
Joan has been studying with the priests and monks for a long time, and has even taken vows. He has already used his ecclesiastical ambitions to manipulate his brother, even. However… on page 251, we learn FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME that he joined the Franciscans because he wanted to learn and become a scholar and thought they were the order of monks that did that (he was mistaken). Within one paragraph of learning that this was his lifelong ambition, the king decrees that he shall have permission to go fulfill this lifelong dream of his by sending him away to the Dominicans. That’s not how you build suspense. That’s the author suddenly realizing he needed a way to get Joan out of the city to set up some other plot point. The reader didn’t know that Joan felt so passionately about this, nor that he wasn’t achieving this dream where he was actually pledged, until author revealed that all this turmoil had been bothering him. If Joan were an actual character who had actually been developed, the reader could have felt some kind of joy at realizing that the King was doing Joan a kindness. Instead, he made Joan a tool.

I first encountered (or became aware of) this sloppy kind of writing with Flowers in the Attic. There’s this scene where the grandmother dumps hot tar on the girl’s head while she’s sleeping, and all her hair has to be cut off in the morning. Right before this happens, the author goes on for a couple of pages about how important her hair is, and how much pleasure she took in her hair, and how much personal meaning her hair had to her. Mind you, until the hair was going to be tarred, there was absolutely no mention at all of the character’s hair beyond the observation that the four kids were all blond like their mother. Lazy, lazy, lazy. I even care about hair, and didn’t care that hers got tar in it. I even care about books and don’t care that Joan wants to be a scholar. In Pillars, it was obvious Jack wanted to learn stuff and deciding to take the cloth was a very big decision he had to make. It was a point of real suspense. In Pillars, brothers Francis and Philip both realize how their choices regarding becoming a priest or a monk affect what kind of life and work they will do for the rest of their lives. In Cathedral, Joan is just a pawn.

I can’t take it.

I guess you would like this book if you really like history. But if you really like history, you should read history books instead of this one. It’s not any harder to understand, the underlying expectation is that the author will spoonfeed you explanations, and the more information the author provides about the time period, the better the book is. Maybe this book has just been marketed deceptively. It wouldn’t be the first time. But I am honestly astonished–astonished, I say!–that it’s won the awards the jacket says it has won. It’s not a very good homage to the building or its workers. It’s just a book about some guy, and there are better books about guys. The King Arthur stories are pretty good places to start.

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