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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Black Cathedral

Marcial Gala

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To purchase The Black Cathedral

Title: The Black Cathedral
Author: Marcial Gala
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 209 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Black Cathedral - US
La catedral de los negros - US
The Black Cathedral - UK
The Black Cathedral - Canada
Die Kathedrale der Schwarzen - Deutschland
La catedral de los negros - España
  • Spanish title: La catedral de los negros
  • Translated by Anna Kushner

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Our Assessment:

B : fairly effective mix of voices and characters

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 12/1/2020 Shaj Mathew
Publishers Weekly A+ 31/10/2019 .
World Lit. Today . Summer/2020 J.M.Livesey

  From the Reviews:
  • "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 novelís form isnít its only radical quality." - Shaj Mathew, The New York Times Book Review

  • "An enthralling work of imagination and grit, Galaís novel captures the complexity of one neighborhood as much as it exemplifies the many pleasures of great fiction." - Publishers Weekly

  • "The Black Cathedral is an interesting piece of prose writing. (...) This is a thought-provoking book with more questions than obvious answers, and it leaves the reader hanging." - Janet Mary Livesey, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Black Cathedral is a multi-voiced novel, the narrative a quilt of recollections by witnesses to and participants in events in a neighborhood in the Cuban city of Cienfuegos (and, in part, way beyond it), covering many years. It is a look at the past, a sort of how-did-we-get-here collection, with many of the figures involved now distant from them and that place, including physically. The account does proceed mostly chronologically, but there are glimpses of what has become of many of the figures, and hints of some of the outcomes from early on, including that the black cathedral of the title would remain an unfinished project, and that the family behind it would be involved in some tragedy; "All of it could have been avoided if they hadn't drawn so much attention" one local notes very early on about the new arrivals that set the story in motion.
       The novel begins with accounts of the arrival of Arturo Santos and his family in the Punta Gotica neighborhood of Cienfuegos, from Camagüey, and they are an immediately disruptive presence. Their coming here alone, of all places, is already suspicious, one character noting:

What could they have done in Camagüey ? Because it had to have been something major for them to run away from that city and end up burying themselves here in la cuartería
       The father is religious, with three teenage children freighted with the names: David King, Samuel Prince, and Mary Johannes (and known by their second, rather than frst names -- even the girl). Interestingly, in a novel in which so many get their say the voices of the family members are almost never heard except second-hand; even though they are cast as central, their own versions of any of the events are barely on offer. So too in the novel as a whole, the Stuart family tends to be more shadow than real, exerting a strong influence, but -- here -- remaining in the background, and shadowy, too, as there's lots of guesswork around them and their lives, (practically) without them able to give their own explanations.
       Similarly, the grand project that Arturo initiates -- the building of an enormous 'Black Cathedral', which many of the locals then become involved in -- is barely ever at the fore of the story. It is significant -- something that long dominates the neighborhood, as its construction stretches out over many years -- but only occasionally at the heart of some of the episodes; most of what is recounted is elsewhere. The temple is also, in its now ruined state: "the only remnant of Arturo Stuart's time in Cienfuegos", and so the novel is both reconstruction of what the family's now vanished presence there meant and, in its chronological recounting, construction of the same, as what happened, and the nature of the family members and their relationships only gradually take shape -- though with a sense of foreboding from early on; as the local high school principal says about the kids when they were under his charge:
To the core, they were rotten; something was hiding behind the Christianity their parents paraded about -- something.
       Indeed, rather than being about the construction of the temple, the novel is largely about, as one character calls them, "the Black Cathedral generation" -- the Stuart kids, with their different talents, but also others in the neighborhood. It's not just the Stuart kids who seem rotten to the core, the whole neighborhood is one where not just violence but evil simmers underneath. The charismatic character whose accounts come up most frequently is known as Gringo (and goes by many names over the course of the story) -- is: "evil, evil, he was like a real Cro-Magnon", and we already learn early on that he winds up on death row in Texas. From his gruesome but almost comic early crimes -- recognizing a market-gap in contemporary Cuba, he figures out a creative way to further cash in on the murders he commits -- he eventually flees to the United States, where he does quite well for himself, albeit in seriously criminal manner; this larger than life figure is the dominant one in the novel, even though his interaction with the Stuart family is relatively minor (though he does court Johannes -- and tries to impress the father to further his cause -- and also corrupts one of the sons).
       Other characters of note include the ghosts of some of the dead, the architect charged with helping design the Black Cathedral (who eventually backs out of the project), a Ukrainian thug, and Berta, who becomes a well-known novelist. There's some poetic talent in the Stuart family as well, while Johannes finds both escape and fame abroad, breaking through as a painter (and changing her name to Judith). The fate of the other two sons, and of Arturo, is rather grimmer; the story sort of builds towards that, but covers so much else along the way.
       The Black Cathedral winds up being an odd mix of character-/neighborhood-/nation-studies and suspense story, Gala dangling the mystery surrounding the collapse of both the Stuart family and the grand cathedral project but drawing that out over a very long time (many years, as well as many pages) while pacing the suspense also with Gringo's doings, the serial killer conveniently spreeing along for quite a stretch (but, soon, on the road, far away ...). It's a pretty dark picture Gala paints of contemporary Cuba and its corruptions -- extending also to Arturo's clever playing of and in the system in order to get what he needed to build his cathedral (so, for example, he made sure his followers went through the right motions: "You couldn't organize anything for the anniversary of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution without them showing up. They were the first ones to donate blood. They went to do volunteer work and the May 1 and July 26 parades"). Despite being a fairly compact novel, it is, however, a(n overly) diffuse picture, with so many characters and stories -- many intertwined, but also straying (especially in the case of the dominant Gringo) far afield.
       One other interesting aspect of the novel is the racial one, as the Stuart family (and many of the other characters) are black and this features, on some level, in much that happens (including when and in how Gringo adapts to the United States). Gala weaves this into his novel well -- but he's weaving a lot into this novel, and elsewhere seems to promise too much (with the cathedral-project, for example), the ultimate delivery of some of this rather weakened. The Stuart family members' often limited presence in so much of the novel is a problematic void -- and in its resolution, where they (or some of them) are more at the fore, the fact that we have learned so little about them to that point undermines that as well.
       An interesting and colorful if ultimately too loose (with its so many threads ...) read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 January 2020

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The Black Cathedral: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Cuban author Marcial Gala was born in 1963.

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© 2020-2022 the complete review

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