The Black Cathedral by Marcial Gala (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2020)
Reviewed by Megan Foster
A good man is hard to find, as they say. This is certainly the case in Cuban author Marcial Gala’s The Black Cathedral, a darkly comic novel that buzzes around the Stewart family’s fated arrival to Cienfuegos. Arturo Stewart moves with his wife Carmen and their three children – David King, Samuel Prince, and Johannes – with the express purpose of constructing a titular cathedral to outshine any temple in Cuba and make Cienfuegos the new Jerusalem. It doesn’t take long for the neighborhood to suspect that the Stewarts are not what they seem. Readers must determine whom to trust as the novel rapidly flits through everyone’s point of view but the Stewarts: town gossips, classmates, a school principal, an architect, a drag queen, ghosts, a serial killer. In a town spurred by greed and violence, no one is holier than thou.
The Black Cathedral delves into the inevitable connections between people and how their transgressions lead like a domino effect into the downfall of others; the sins of the father impact more than just the son. Moreover, Gala’s novel emphasizes what occurs when crucial parts of peoples’ identities –- in particular, sexuality and religion –- are overshadowed by greed and violence. It becomes impossible to disassociate one from the other, just as it becomes impossible to separate one family’s narrative from those of their neighbors.
So often, expressions of sexuality go hand-in-hand with violence. . Within the first pages of the novel, one boy attacks another for calling him a “fairy” (6). Male characters whose sexuality is under scrutiny must constantly resort to violence or other manifestations of power to prove themselves. Meanwhile greed, instead of violence, warps a lesbian couple’s relationship. We learn that one of them was cheating with a man the entire time, treating her female lover as a commodity and choosing to never become another woman’s wife–which, she believes, would be commodifying herself. The most graphic depictions of sexuality perverted by greed and violence occur through Gringo, a serial killer. Gringo pins the blame for his murders on his love for Johannes, and ultimately can’t perceive the difference between wanting a woman’s body and wanting to kill her. Understandably, Gala emphasizes violence against two groups historically subjugated for their sex and sexuality: women and the LGBTQ community. And his characters demonstrate another tragedy: that it is not uncommon for people within these groups to perpetuate the violence done against them for their own self-preservation or power.
It’s not surprising that with such a vast array of selfish characters, racism also comes into play as one of the clear-cut examples of how people commodify others. One black character bemoans that “if you’re born black, you’re already screwed” (7). Several male characters determine which women they want to sleep with based solely on their skin color. When one male character doesn’t appear to sleep with women, another character considers: “Could he be homosexual or does he not like people of his own race?” (147). Racism is just one of several ways in which characters justify abusing or refusing others for their own ends.
As its name alone suggests, The Black Cathedral delves into the dangers of corrupted religion. When Gringo obsesses over Johannes, he’s told that if he simply becomes a Christian, then he’ll “conquer her” (23). Gala shows that religion, at its worst, is a tool for manipulating and overpowering others. Even Arturo Stewart, who spurs the erection of the church himself, is not above reproach:
“That’s how he was, always with God on the tip of his tongue, but convinced that everything could be resolved through money and demagoguery” (47).
Nothing is especially sanctified about the Church of the Holy Sacrament of the Resurrected Church and its parishioners, spurred by greed the same as everyone else. Gossipers christen the church “the Black Cathedral” (93), “a monument to nothingness” (120), and “the evil cathedral” (151), a mere reflection of the darkness within its congregants’ hearts. Glory be unto their own names. God has nothing to do with their aims.
While not all characters receive their just desserts, many never fulfill their dreams. People are left pining for true love, are jailed, are murdered, are lost. Even a ghost supposes that she was greedy for wanting an air conditioner when she already had plenty of fans. Zany and grotesque as it is, the cast of The Black Cathedral is ultimately composed of no more than everyday neighbors, a humbling reminder that none of us are above selfishness, sacrilege, and greed.
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