The Black Cathedral by Marcial Gala
Split into a prism of countless fractured narratives, Marcial Gala’s The Black Cathedral pieces together the story of the religious Stuart family, who moves into the neighborhood of Cienfuegos, Cuba to begin construction on a Sacramentalist temple. As Arturo Stuart’s congregation gains an unwieldy following, his temple grows like a cancer, blooming into an unfathomable size. Told Rashomon–style, with neighbors and onlookers contributing short accounts of the troubling events surrounding the preacher’s family, Gala molds his relentless novel into an allegory about faith, community and modern Cuba.
Gala’s prose expands at a similarly uncontrollable clip. Stylistically, this is an interesting parallel to make — connecting the tapestry of a multi-part narrative to a network of believers — but Gala isn’t able to execute this concept in a way that feels purposeful. The Black Cathedral runs away from itself and loses its own plot; new narrators appear one after the other, while some characters’ threads dominate the story with personal developments far from the novel’s architectural nexus. And while some readers may argue that this is indeed Gala’s plan — that, like tested faith, this story too has strayed from its fundamentals — it makes for a somewhat sloppy novel that feels made up as it was written.
One of the biggest flaws of The Black Cathedral is that despite its panoply of narrators, its many voices blur together. The fragments of Gala’s story can be divided into two categories: a low-brow, “realist” narrative and a heady, conceptual one. Stories from local neighbors, gang members and inmates feel interchangeable, while poets, architects, and religious philosophers all rhapsodize in a similar pitch. When the architect Rogelio explains that “the temple itself seemed to overflow, to make itself larger, to the point that it seemed like a schizophrenic building,” it feels like a potent line that could have been delivered by any of the more thoughtful characters during their many recollections. Meanwhile, Guts, Nacho Fat-Lips, and other local miscreants tell a single story in fragments, offering little more than a new perspective on the same situation.
And then, there’s Gringo, a cannibal serial killer who hijacks The Black Cathedral and transforms it into a story about his female conquests and gruesome murders. Again, some readers may argue that if the novel’s narrative is an allegory for faith, then Gringo is the evil that makes that faith wander, but it’s too exhausting to deal with Gringo’s edginess to make it towards this more thoughtful reading. In one section, he’s having an affair with both a woman and her daughter, in another he’s boiling heads in a cast-iron pot. Gringo’s narrative slips around its timeline, too, drifting from what feels like real-time action to death-row recollections of his exploits. Ultimately, in what feels like a misstep in Gala’s pacing, The Black Cathedral devotes more time to Gringo than it does to Arturo and his family, eventually placing the novel closer American Psycho than to William Golding’s The Spire.
Elsewhere, Rogelio describes the cathedral as “a temple, something that, in these times when everything is in decline, dares to rise up and say, I’m here despite it all, I’m here, look at me.” Gala’s novel, too, clamors for attention. He achieves fascinating heights with his effortless and quietly conceptual storytelling, but stumbles along the way, distracted by tiresome sex and violence.