In “A Fortress to Faith — or Faith’s Undoing?” Shaj Mathew reviews Marcial Gala’s The Black Cathedral (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020) a translation—by Anna Kushner—of La catedral de los negros (Editorial Letras Cubanas 2012, 2015). This novel received the Alejo Carpentier Award for Novel in 2012. Mathew explains that in Gala’s novel, “ Cienfuegos rivals Havana in terms of intrigue.”
A “virtuous” structure, according to John Ruskin, must “act well, and do the things it was intended to do in the best way.” It must “speak well, and say the things it was intended to say in the best words.” It must also “look well, and please us by its presence, whatever it has to do or say.”
The cathedral at the heart of Marcial Gala’s new novel does precisely none of these things, but, then again, virtue was never really on the mind of its visionary founder. Arturo Stuart, a Sacramentalist preacher, kicks off the action by moving his family to the Cuban city of Cienfuegos, where he’s been called by God to erect a fortress to his faith.
Arturo is part caricature (“Blessings” is his preferred greeting) and all charisma: The congregation soars from 20 to nearly a thousand because of him. But his benedictions can’t save the city, and the family’s arrival christens one of its darkest chapters. Within the novel’s opening pages, his son splits open his neighbor’s head with a book, and this incident — demonstrating one of literature’s least appreciated uses — is a harbinger of the violence to come. Meanwhile, the cathedral, once a beacon of progress, remains an empty shell, haunting and taunting its residents as a symbol of modern Cuba’s social malaise.
The novel then veers into the surreal. Accidental cannibals, tenderhearted killers, angst-ridden ghosts and well-behaved artists soon populate its topsy-turvy universe. With names like Nacho Fat-Lips, Guts, Gringo and el Ruso, its dramatis personae introduce us to the demimonde of Cienfuegos — a place that, in Gala’s imaginings, rivals Havana in terms of intrigue. Indeed, “The Black Cathedral” forms part of a trilogy called “Cienfuegos, Capital of the World.” Even as the novel charts the voyages of its vagabonds, it represents an attempt to draw the periphery into the center, steering us toward the provinces as it renovates the Cuban novel.
“The concept is accessibility, permission,” the architect brought onto Arturo’s project explains. “The temple is like an open hand everyone can hold.” These lines double as a description of the novel, which takes the form of an oral history. Its narrators, more than a dozen in number, are usually granted a page at a time before other characters butt in, pick up the thread or offer their own spin on the same series of events. This chaotic, democratic bricolage — each voice vulgar and vulnerable in its own way — styles the novel as a series of interviews. Taken together, they represent a cubist inquest into the soul of Cienfuegos.
The novel’s form isn’t its only radical quality. “The Black Cathedral,” evocative of the Cuban films of Sara Gómez and Humberto Solás, shows the Sacramentalists to be savvy politicians. They honor the country’s political history whenever possible, undoing the classical divide between religion and revolution. Enchantment plays no small role in the lives of these characters, and their trials of faith — “I’m a materialist and I don’t even believe in my own mother, but it’s the truth, those people are cursed,” a principal says of his pupils — mirror the state of the cathedral, a beatific failure.
“I wanted to bring a piece of modernity to a sleepy Cuban town,” the architect laments. “I wanted that filthy neighborhood of Punta Gotica to have at least one thing to show the world.” His pessimism, however, seems misplaced: In fact, it is because the cathedral remains incomplete, more dream than reality, that it becomes the ultimate monument to the modern. It falls short, but at the same time, it doesn’t.
[Photo credit: Matthias Graben/Alamy.]