Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Ildefonso Falcones: Cathedral of the Sea

Tom Gaisford reviews Ildefonso Falcones' Cathedral of the Sea.
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.
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