March 20, 2021

Article at Big Kitty Magazine

Review: The Black Cathedral

The Black Cathedral by Marcial Gala

Translated by Anna Kushner

English edition 2020 Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Fiction)

Do not, even for one moment, enter The Black Cathedral, imagining the Cuba of your all-inclusive dreams. With jovial hawkers and grinning taxi drivers commandeering a Lada or a Studebaker on your sightseeing day trip to the city.

Imagine instead, a fractured underworld of graphic violence and indignities endured by both the living and the dead, of outward and internalized racial hierarchies and an unofficial melanin caste system, of unsuspecting cannibals, abusive religious fanatics, Afro-Caribbean occultists, black widowers, death row inmates, ghosts, poets, conmen, architects, and schizophrenics ... all desperate to get by - or to get out.

Set in Punta Gótica, a low income suburb of Cienfuegos - a southern inlet along the central coastline of the Cuban cocodrilo's belly, and narrated by an extensive cast of characters that rivals any Gabriel García Márquez novel in number, and any ancient Greek tragedist's chorus, guiding both the reader and the many protagonists uneasily through this jagged funhouse of trick mirrors.

The Bible's Book of Genesis tells of Noah's descendants, united after the great flood, who began building a tower; a monument to connect the city of Babel to Heaven. God fears the townspeople's unity of language and communal camaraderie could actually facilitate the successful completion of such a tower leading them all to Heaven, albeit unconventionally.

Enraged that they could be so bold, God, as any omnipotent union buster would do - scrambles the mother tongue of all the builders - forcing new languages upon each of them, and banishes them - scattering them all over the earth, never to understand each other again.

Catholicism being all-pervasive in Cuba, perhaps the vengeful God of the Old Testament turned his eye to Punta Gótica the day the zealous Stuart family arrived, and the day the Black Cathedral began its brick-by-brick climb towards Heaven.

Newly arrived, Arturo, the family patriarch, intends to put Cienfuegos on the map by building a massive cathedral in the middle of one of its most notorious slums.

But as each brick is laid, and as the menacing spectre gains ground, a malevolent fog of unease burrows into the minds of the many narrators of this tale. The reader knows something unspeakable is about to happen - because no one will speak of it. Their overlapping and incessant chatter is suddenly bound and gagged.

None of the Stuart family themselves appear amongst this tragic chorus - save the youngest son, Samuel Prince. Although, it’s unclear whether it's truly his voice or a remorseful fever dream.

"Prince" and his older brother David King, or, "Cricket," are the Yin and Yang of the novel; the two forces standing on either side of a catastrophic fault line. They are the "Black Cathedral generation," as one neighbourhood matron claims and it's not a compliment.

Aberration out of desperation leads to excess - until they all plummet, like Icarus, under the watchful eye of an abandoned Black Cathedral which, "even God didn't want in the end."