So as you know, I’m interested in bestsellers, especially (but not only) in their Spanish incarnation. In fact, I have a whole blog category about them. But the problem with bestsellers is that they tend to be really, really long and, as last spring’s reading marathon showed, they seem to be getting longer all the time. What this means, of course, is that the busy reader looks at the row of recently-acquired brick-sized bestsellers on the TBR shelf, gulps, sighs, turns around, and picks up the beloved Kindle again, swearing to get some wrist weights and build up those biceps ready to take on the super-tomes at some unspecified time in the future.
Or is that just me?
But, last week I went on a Proper Holiday (to Lanzarote, since you ask, and very sunny and cultural it was too) and so, knowing that my primary objectives for the week were 1) swimming, 2) reading, 3) eating fish, 4) swimming, and 5) reading, I thought, why not?, and popped one of the TBR shelf’s most senior residents into my suitcase. La Catedral del mar, a first novel by the Catalan lawyer Ildefonso Falcones, was published back in 2006 and made its first appearance on this blog’s TBR list back in October 2010 (I know, I know…). I read the Spanish edition, but the novel is also available in an English translation by Nick Caistor, as The Cathedral of the Sea (2009).
As we can tell by the fulsome quote from Qué Leer on the back cover of my edition, which proclaims that “Barcelona ya tiene su Los pilares de la Tierra” (Now Barcelona has its Pillars of the Earth), the novel has been heavily marketed for its resemblance to this 1989 doorstopper by Ken Follett, Spain’s most consistently popular author of the last decade. As the eagle-eyed (and elephant-memoried) among you will remember, back in the autumn of 2010 I set to reading Pillars of the Earth itself (all 1076 pages of it), partly as preparation for getting down to La catedral del mar. It’s taken me a little longer than I anticipated to get around to it, but now that I have, how did Catedral measure up to its illustrious predecessor?
Well, the answer to that question is interesting, and not entirely as I expected. Pillars of the Earth is about the building of a (fictional) cathedral in southwest England, and the complicated networks of real and fictional characters who contribute to, participate in, impede, and observe its construction. It’s a romp – lots of sex, lots of passion, melodrama, betrayal, dramatic twists of fate, plummeting fortunes, exile and conspiracy. Catedral? Not so much.
It’s true that on paper, the two novels look to have a lot in common. Yes, Catedral is about the construction of a (real-life) church, Barcelona’s Santa María del Mar (above), and the communities, guilds, networks and individuals of the 14th-century city that surge around it. And yes, the central character Arnau Estanyol suffers some pretty unpleasant twists, turns, rises and falls of fate, just like Follett’s Builders, Hamleighs and Shirings. But the general thrust of Falcones’s novel is, at least for this reader, didactic. He’s a lawyer, and it shows. If Follett’s novel is a joyful invention of an imagined world that flashes only occasionally into contact with the historical record, Falcones’s novel is anchored to that record, as we see in the author’s endnote, which explains the novel’s basis in the events of ‘la Crónica de Pedro III’ (663) – which I think is the Chronicle that Wikipedia calls ‘Crónica de Pedro el Ceremonioso’.
This didacticism manifests itself in long digressions, which are generally dry narrations of political and economic history, and which often threaten to overwhelm the individual story at the novel’s heart. I found myself regularly leafing past numerous pages that seemed to contribute nothing to Arnau’s story, which was pretty gripping, when it was allowed to take hold. While I was reading by the pool, this annoyed me. Just get back to the plot already! But on reflection, and from the safe distance of rainy north west England, I reckon my annoyance (which is echoed by a number of the reviewers of the English edition on Amazon) comes from my having rather missed Falcones’s point. And that point, I think, has been obscured – wilfully or not – by the scramble to claim the novel as an example of a universal cultural form in a distinctive local idiom – ‘Barcelona’s own Pillars of the Earth.’ Bear with me…
Essentially, we shouldn’t be trying to read Catedral as a Pillars-of-the-Earth-type spectacular – or at least we should be prepared for frustration if we do. Rather, it’s an attempt to novelize a transformative moment in Catalan history, from a particular, Barcelona-centred perspective. As a novelization of the transition in Catalan history between ‘la vieja’ and ‘la nueva’ Catalonia, the more sensational elements of Arnau’s story allow the author to explore the remarkable shift occurring in the relations between different social sectors and the often violent consequences of the increased social mobility that appeared as a result. This reading, however, also reveals fundamental problems in Falcones’s literary reconstruction of this complex social tapestry. The presence of slaves, Muslims and Jews in the city allows the author to nod to Barcelona’s position at the centre of a global trading network, but the key Muslim and Jewish characters are heavily idealised and thus, I’m sorry to say, rather cloyingly dull. Female characters too are frustratingly underdeveloped, generally appearing either as virgin, whore or harpy.* And, of course, Falcones’s decision to project the tumultuous history of this part of the Mediterranean, which radiates out through Valencia, Aragon, Mallorca, Sicily, and Sardinia, through a determinedly Barcelonan perspective is not without controversy.
Ultimately, the critical / marketing tactic of trying to squeeze La Catedral del mar into the mould created by The Pillars of the Earth really isn’t doing either book any favours. I think there’s a lot more to be said about Catedral as a building-block in the projection of Catalan identity at another moment of profound social change (i.e. today), and I think that the role of the digressions in creating a universalising historical framework for what is essentially a localized fictional story is ripe for a more detailed study. But that would involve rereading the novel and paying attention to those digressions. And that, my friends, is a job for somebody who isn’t me. Volunteers?
*There are also a remarkable number of fruity references to budding adolescent nipples, the constant repetition of which continues to skeeve me out. That’s not to say there aren’t nipples in Pillars too – there are, plenty of them – but they just aren’t so emphatically young. *shudders*