Ben Hopkins: Cathedral

Through previous readings, this reader has encountered provocative theories that suggest that it was religious reformation that freed human thought from church dogma thus giving rise to individualism, which subsequently paved the way for the Renaissance; and also theories of the aftermath of the Black Death setting the scene for capitalism by overthrowing social systems including feudalism.

The Protestant Reformation erupted in the 1500s, the Black Death in the 1300s. Ben Hopkins’ novel of six hundred and twenty four pages begins in the 1200s, but through its characters, we already witness the gradual ascent of mercantile capitalism and individualism challenging the hegemony of the Catholic Church.

But thankfully, these big words and the sophisticated ideas that are attached to them are not heaped too heavily on the reader’s shoulders. The author seems to have employed his filmmaking expertise by creating a well-paced and entertaining book with a handful of dramatic imagery and contrasting characters across the broad spectrum of society, but which also carries so much understanding of the religious and socioeconomic landscape of a particular European period.

In the midst of it all, the Cathedral — or more accurately, the construction of the Cathedral — that remains unfinished and continues to be built even by the end of this novel. This novel that begins in 1229 and ends in 1351. This Cathedral that symbolizes a number of things. 

In this story there is clearly the aspect of the historical, or the architectural, but which should always lead one to contemplate on the personal — the edifices that we build for ourselves. And because we already know how certain it is that we can carry nothing out, what do we leave behind?

To quote a cherished character who passed away by the the shores of Constantinople, “A man can die anywhere. It’s all the same. The only important thing is how he lives.”

Negar Djavadi: Disoriental

“Freedom is an illusion. The only thing that changes is the size of your prison.”

Disoriental. We know what the prefix implies. But the clever wordplay refers to more than something that is non-oriental. It alludes to the disorienting, the experience of being uprooted abruptly from an oriental into an entirely contrasting and unfamiliar culture — the tragedy of exile.

“I can tell you that you have to disintegrate first, at least partially, from your own. You have to separate, detach, disassociate. No one who demands that immigrants make ‘an effort at integration’ would dare look them in the face and ask them to start making the necessary ‘effort at disintegration.’ They’re asking people to stand atop the mountain without climbing it up first.”

Although this novel has the familiar background of a young person having to flee Iran during the Islamic Revolution, this takes a step further. The main character dispenses her own unique commentary on Iran’s political events in fragments, but this delves more into its aftereffects on the internal climate of an exile.  

“To be honest, nothing is more like exile than birth. Being torn, out of survival instinct or necessity, with violence and hope, from your first home, your protective cocoon, only to be propelled into an unknown world where you constantly have to deal with curious stares. Every exile knows that path, like the one from the uterine canal, that dark hyphen between the past and future which, once crossed, closes again and condemns you to wander.”

Hers was a personality I could not initially relate to, and so I shelved this a while ago. Returning to it weeks later and reading a little bit more, the dissonant feeling turned to empathy, and by the time I got to the last page, I was crying for this character who had nothing in common with me.

“After so much time and distance, it’s not their world that flows in my veins anymore, or their languages or traditions or beliefs, or even their fears, but their stories.”

And so I’ve learned that stories are written for the sake of the writer and stories are read for the sake of the reader; so the first may pursue connection and the latter empathy.