Cathedral of the Sea is as sculpted and fluid a tale as the image conjured up by its picturesque title. Originally written in Spanish, the international bestseller appears now in an impressively graceful translation which captures beautifully the archaic and lyrical tone of the narrative. Drawing on the chronicle of Pedro III, Ildefonso Falcones's first and lengthy novel steals us away into darkest 14th- century feudal Catalonia, a period defined by serfdom and subjugation, by iniquitous laws and by their brutal enforcement.
Because of his relative wealth, the peasant farmer Bernat Estanyol almost succeeds in breaking this mould. However, while celebrating his wedding day in the late September sun, the appearance of three men on horseback and their retinue signals a rapid end to any such aspiration. Exercising his feudal rights, Llorenc de Bellera, the Lord of Navarcles, whisks Bernat's new bride upstairs and rapes her. In order to pre-empt responsibility for "any future bastards", Navarcles then forces the groom himself to repeat the act on pain of being flayed alive.
Within a year of this opening act of savagery, in which our hero, Arnau, is conceived, he and his mother are abducted by Navacles' men. The grim cruelty of this young family's situation is set against a sense of timeless oppression, so systemic that it verges on the mundane: "Bernat peered at the cloud of dust trailing off towards the horizon, and then looked over at the two oxen, stolidly chewing on the ears of corn they had been trampling over and over." In this way Falcones draws a parallel between the plight of the peasant community and the corn on which all elements of society depend: both serve merely to be crushed and exploited.
As you might have guessed, the stage is thus set for a tale of revenge worthy of a spaghetti western. Indeed, Arnau's ascent from serf to baron could be perceived as such. Yet this story is better than that. Its beauty lies in its vivid exposition of the complexities of a bygone society plagued by disparity, prejudice and battles for power. The church of Santa Maria de la Mar provides the key stone to this exceptional work. In the words of its revered master builder, it is a refuge where the only decoration will be the light of the Mediterranean, "a church for the common people, not for the greater glory of any prince."
Arnau's episodic adventures form a picaresque blockbuster. Along the way we encounter promiscuity, murder, torture, anti-Semitism, conquest and the Plague. And just when the disasters seem to be at their most relentless, the Inquisition puts in an appearance. Against such high drama, the enduring values of honour, loyalty and humility embodied in the character of Arnau ring out across Falcones's medieval landscape like the rallying bells of Barcelona's Plaza dele Blat.
Yet perhaps more far-reaching still is the unbreakable bond of tenderness of Arnau's relationship with his father. For all the church's symbolic stature, this filial closeness represents a sanctuary deeper even than the vault at Santa Maria de la Mar: "...they would be safe from Llorenc de Bellera here, [Bernat] thought as he closed his eyes and matched his breathing to that of his sleeping son."