A Fortress to Faith — or Faith’s Undoing?
THE BLACK CATHEDRAL
By Marcial Gala
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 article was originally published by Newyorktimes