‘The Black Cathedral’: A Neighborhood Cacophony

“Disorienting and choppy (eh, sometimes literally), yet robust and dripping with a dark vibrancy”—that’d be my book blurb for ‘The Black Cathedral‘ by Marcial Gala (if anybody asks).

The black cathedral itself is more of the symbolic backdrop to the story as the varying plot lines unravel. The characters’ narratives—all 12 of them—begin in Cienfuegos, Cuba as an outsider family moves into a gritty and mistrusting neighborhood and begins construction on a grand cathedral.

That man from Camagüey ate, lived, and breathed Jesus Christ, always had Him at the tip of his tongue. The day of their arrival, he threw five pesos at the kids who were playing soccer so they would help him unload the stuff, and then he came over to greet us. He had a polite smile and a thin, strong, dry hand. “Blessings,” he said. “My name is Arturo and this is my wife, Carmen.” “Blessings,” echoed that Carmen, who was walking a few steps behind; you could tell she was too hot for a guy like him, in his 50s and pretty run-down, you could tell that wouldn’t end well.

All of the narrators relate to each other, finishing each other’s stories, or cross paths to varying degrees. They do not seem to be converging on a common link other than tragedy, which is heavily foreshadowed from the beginning. Being so, I found the chaos to be purposeful—a traditional narrative arc wouldn’t have fit the characters or overall tone. It took a little work to hit the rhythm of the story and I think that adds another dimension: as a reader, I had a feeling of being outsider from the onset as I tried make sense of the neighborhood’s inhabitants, their actions, and the shif between what’s real and what’s magical. If the story was tidy or easier to follow, I think it also would’ve been flat and lacking what made it a compelling (even if uncomfortable) read.

‘The Black Cathedral’ was translated from Spanish by Anna Kushner. I originally found it on this ‘watchlist’ for titles in translation.

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