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Review: Cathedral, by Ben Hopkins
Europa, 2021. 618 pp. $28

In 1229, nineteen-year-old Reichard Schäffer’s father dies, leaving him the head of the family in a quiet, out-of-the-way sheep herding village. Deciding that serfdom and sheep no longer suit him, the boy, known as Rettich, leaves his village with his younger brother, Emmerich, for Hagenburg, the (fictional) Alsatian town that gleams like a marvel in their eyes. It’s anything but, of course, but both boys will understand its depths and complexities in time, though from very different perspectives.

Right off, Rettich seeks to buy their freedom so that they may remain city-dwellers, a reminder that in thirteenth-century Europe, birth determines not only who you are and what profession you may follow, but where you may live. What Rettich desires is nothing less than revolutionary, and people who hear his plan shake their heads. But one person who listens is Meir Rosenheim, the Jewish moneylender, to whom the Schäffers appeal for the ready coin they need. Serfs normally wouldn’t prove worthy debtors, but Meir perceives something in them that decides him to take a chance, and besides, Emmerich’s remarkable capacity to calculate intrigues him. Rettich gets his money; the boys buy their freedom; and Emmerich has a job with the house of Rosenheim.

Théophile Schuler’s reimagining, in 1850, of the construction of the western wall of the Strasbourg cathedral, late thirteenth century (courtesy Musées de la Ville de Strasbourg, Cabinet des Estampes et des Dessins, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

From such small beginnings great things emerge. Rettich, a gifted woodcarver, earns an apprenticeship to the stonecutters working on the Hagenburg Cathedral, very much in its infancy. Emmerich learns how to handle money and proves himself an astute businessman. From them, and the many characters that come in contact with them, spins a beautifully imagined tale of greed, politics, skullduggery, sex, bigotry, and piety, often in mystical terms. As this order of importance implies, for most of Hagenburg, building a cathedral is a religious enterprise in name only. Rettich is an exception.

But he can’t say so, at least not in the way he would like, because nobody would listen. As an artist, he believes in reproducing figures from nature, a heretical notion, especially when it comes to cathedral artwork. He does find an outlet for discussion with an architect, a true visionary, whose views are equally controversial. But change is in the air. Witness Emmerich, who learns banking—though it’s not called that—and the power that money wields in politics, when noblemen are perennially short of cash. They fear and despise him but know he’s absolutely necessary.

Both brothers embody a strain of the coming Renaissance that no one foresees—and so does their sister, Grete. She marries up, to a struggling merchant in town, of whom she quickly proves the equal. Naturally, that makes him uncomfortable, but the results speak for themselves. And Grete thinks large. She works toward the day when money will allow people of her social class—her new, acquired social class–to have a say in how things get done, elbowing her way among the aristocracy. This avant-garde feminist attempts to break several barriers, and the manner in which she goes about it makes all three siblings’ stories compelling.

Inwardly, outwardly, and sometimes both, these characters and others act with great daring. Those among the large cast who can afford to—and a few who shouldn’t—speak their minds freely, which lends the narrative zest and fire. The novel’s resident cynic is Eugenius von Zabern, a church canon and the bishop’s secretary, who has the unenviable task of finding money to build the cathedral:

The world needs clerks and lawyers in the same way as it needs leprosy, plagues, earthquakes. Without them, life would be a colourless stroll toward death. But here they are, proliferating and multiplying over the face of our earth, and taking ever more prominent positions in the chambers of power. In the olden days, virtuous rulers would surround their thrones with the flower of chivalry, but today the leaders of our world are ringed by advisers, counsellors, clerks and Jews.
I should know. I am one of this new cursèd class of quill-scratching, shadow-skulking literati. . .

Reading such prose is one delight of Cathedral, and though there’s a lot of it, I find nothing extraneous. Scenes move smartly, and the dialogue clips along, perhaps testament to Hopkins’s career as a screenwriter and director. I also admire his grasp of historical detail. Whether describing Hagenburg (a character in itself), the glimmers of change and how people react to it, or endemic belief in conspiracy theories, especially about heretics or Jews, Hopkins renders time and place with complete authority. I defy anyone to start this book and put it down.

Cathedral is a masterpiece.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.