Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Cathedral of the Sea by Ildefonso Falcones

Source of book: I own this.


Book written by a lawyer? Something my brother got for me? A book in translation that is historical fiction about a very specific time and place? Well, this does at least sound interesting. 


So, the story behind this book is that my brother’s friend from Spain recommended it, and he found a pair of used copies, one for each of us, and thus it ended up in my library. 


Actually, what then happened was that my 14 year old read it for his “free reading” at school, then I read it, and we are still waiting for my brother. 


So, an interesting back story. And also an interesting book. 


What is it about? Well, before Spain was the country it is now, it was part of a fractured Europe, with parts of our modern countries their own nations, or at least independently governed duchies. One of the most historically significant one was that of Catalonia. And within Catalonia, there was the independent city-state of Barcelona. The relationships between Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain, France, and the Catholic Church were pretty intertwined and complex. And the alliances were constantly shifting as each tried to grab power while avoiding having their power taken away. Pretty typical stuff. 


The book is set in the 14th Century, kind of near the beginning of the Inquisition, but at the tail end of the great cathedral-building movement. The title itself comes from the Santa Maria del Mar - the famous and beautiful church in Barcelona built at this time, and dedicated to Mary, patroness of the sea. 


While the specific personal events of the book are fictional, the book is extensively historical. The wars, the almost-wars, and the rest are drawn faithfully from contemporary sources. Many of the smaller details were also drawn directly from historical sources, although used for different people. These include many of the most horrifying scenes in the book: the wedding-night rape of the protagonist’s mother by her serf husband’s lord, the marrying of a woman to her rapist, the walling up of a woman who had sex out of wedlock in a prison for the rest of her life, and more. As the author points out in his note at the end, each of these was perfectly legal in the places they occurred (although not universally throughout Europe or even Spain) and are described in contemporary sources, complete with names and dates. The author is also quick to note that the opinions of women expressed in the book are very much not his own, but were true to history. 


The scenes involving the persecutions of the Jews were also fully historical. We are quick to forget that Hitler didn’t invent things such as the gold stars Jews had to wear, or the pogroms against them. Hitler was just more successful at the attempts at extermination that had been going on in Europe for more than a thousand years. 


This is a pretty long book - it encompasses most of the life of the protagonist, Arnau Estanyol, from the circumstances of his conception to his old age. In a sense, the book is a “rags to riches” story, but also a way to illustrate a whole cross-section of late Medieval society. 


I don’t want to spoil all the twists, because the plot is part of the fun. Arnau comes to Barcelona after his father flees with him. All they have to do is live in Barcelona without being caught, and they are freed from their serfdom. But “freedom” is somewhat illusionary in a socially stratified society. Later, Arnau joins the “bastaixos,” essentially the longshoremen of Barcelona - they also carry the stones to build the church. Twists of fate combine with Arnau’s choices to bring him wealth eventually, but also to place his life at risk from the Inquisition. 


There are also a number of women who are central to Arnau’s life, for better or worse. They, even more than he, are subject to fates they cannot control. They cannot choose their spouses, they are brutally punished for sexuality outside of their arranged marriages, they can be beaten and abused at will, and they have very few options or agency in their own lives. 


In this case, Arnau eventually marries three times - the first is an arranged marriage he and the woman, Maria, are essentially pressured into for social reasons. She is sweet and loving, but he cannot return her love because he is in love with Aledis, who was married against her will to a disgusting old man, who rapes her on the rare occasions he can get it up. Maria, sadly, dies in the plague. Later, Arnau is forced to marry the king’s ward, which makes both of them miserable for different reasons, and causes a lot of the unpleasantness in the later third of the book. 


I guess, beyond that, I can just hit on some of the fascinating stuff that comes into the book. There is a fairly extended discussion of the inconsistent and stultifyingly stupid laws regarding the charging of interest, which on the one hand gives the Jews a near-monopoly on certain loans, but which also carves out so many exceptions that make for a truly complex interconnection between Jew and Gentile that makes the periodic bouts of antisemitism problematic for everyone. 


There is an intriguing look into the toleration of prostitution - even the Pope believed that it was a social benefit in some ways, preventing men who couldn’t marry from raping “respectable” women or turning to homosexual acts. Prostitutes not only had a legal status (as long as they followed certain rules), but they were - if they survived long enough - able to be more independent than most women in that society, in many cases becoming financially independent. 


I found the legal stuff - which Falcones definitely took the time to understand and explain - to be fun, although your mileage may vary, of course. This is one reason I have tended to enjoy books by lawyers - from Sir Walter Scott to C. J. Sansom. Lawyers tend to care about the law, and understanding the past requires both understanding the culture and understanding the law that culture gave birth to. 


I should give fair warning about this book, though, for readers with triggers: this book is full of violence, particularly (although not limited to) violence against women. The author clearly does not approve of this violence, but it is arguably necessary both to the plot and to historical accuracy. There is also a good bit of sex, including some that seems kind of shocking to American readers, with our puritanical streak that lingers in our culture. For example, there is a short but borderline graphic scene where a young woman masturbates. Why that seems more shocking than all the rape (in and out of marriage) is an interesting question, but there is no doubt that one finds more references to rape in literature than female self-pleasure. In that sense, the author is pretty egalitarian - the question of female pleasure in sex is largely what determines whether sex is wanted - that is consensual - or not. Pleasure and consent are inseparable in both directions. Non-consensual sex cannot give pleasure despite biology, and sex that brings pain rather than pleasure is by definition non-consensual at some level. Or, perhaps put more carefully, men who do not care about female pleasure will rape, and even marital sex that is not wanted and is not done with the intent of giving a woman happiness can never be truly consensual. 


This, by the way, is one of the reasons that I believe most sex in patriarchal systems is, frankly, terrible. I mean, read Fundie books on sex, and it is difficult to escape the conclusion that not only is sex for women rarely pleasurable, but also that female pleasure is frowned upon altogether. At best, it is a complete afterthought to male satisfaction. Reading this book, it is pretty clear what the Patriarchists envision for society. And it is pretty much hell for women. 


While it is always a bit difficult to distinguish between the work of an author and a translator for books in translation, I do find it fascinating that books in translation tend to display different writing styles that are tied to the original language. For example, despite the more than 50 years between their writing, this book has some similar stylistic cues with The Cypresses Believe in God by Jose Maria Gironella, another historical novel by a Spanish author that I enjoyed. 


Like other works of literary historical fiction, Cathedral of the Sea contains a well thought out plot, and a host of complex and deeply human characters. Arnau himself is believable - he can be both compassionate and vindictive at the same time. He can be consumed by lust while full of guilt. He has moments of brilliance followed by bonehead mistakes. Yet you cannot help rooting for him: he is an everyman sort, who really just wants what the rest of us want. A life free from starvation and violence, to be treated with respect, and to love a partner who returns our love. 


Give this book a try if you like historical fiction, or want to expand your knowledge of the past and its history. 




Interesting legal note about the author:


Apparently, Falcones has had a good bit of legal trouble as the result of this and his later books. I am no expert on foreign law, so I may be misunderstanding the facts, but I have also heard that Spanish tax law is labyrinthine, and, like Italian law, tends to use the criminal justice system for tax enforcement. (In Italy, of the three parallel police forces, the tax police are the most feared.) This leads to criminal trials that might end with incarceration, but more often end up with payments, both bribes and fines. So, sometimes Italians or Spaniards are surprised by how seriously we take tax fraud here in the US. (But also how we don’t treat mistakes as criminal matters for the most part - you pay the tax and a penalty unless you consciously tried to cheat.) 


In this case, Falcones apparently tried to minimize tax liability for the books by moving the copyright overseas. How this works, I have no idea - the US system works totally differently, and Falcones undoubtedly has had to pay full taxes on his book sales here. 


What happened was that Falcones was acquitted (no word on what he had to pay), but is facing a new case based on later books. So, who knows? It sounds like a mess, and a different kind of mess authors have here in the US. 


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