IN CUBAN AUTHOR Marcial Gala’s 2012 novel The Black Cathedral (newly translated by Anna Kushner), a large cast of characters, including several ghosts, narrates a story about a “neighborhood of forgotten black people and desperate white people,” where merely surviving can feel like a feat. The narrative, jumping from voice to voice to give us a kaleidoscopic vision of events, also leaps forward and back in time: we learn in the early pages that a main character will end up in a US prison, that another will suffer from diabetes.
Trained as an architect, the author seems less interested in chronology and its secrets than in creating the illusion that we’re experiencing his story from every angle, as we would were we walking through a building. The strategy of embedding the future in the present has the effect of deepening the pathos, heightening our awareness of the vulnerability of characters who, in keeping with the principles of tragedy, appear to be moving inexorably toward their fates (a technique Gala perfects in his most recent novel, Call Me Cassandra , where the narrator foresees everything that’s going to happen to himself and the other characters each step along the way).
The Black Cathedral ostensibly centers on the arrival of the Stuart family in the Punta Gotica neighborhood of Cienfuegos and the pastor father’s decision to build a cathedral there, but the Stuarts are less full-blown protagonists than catalysts that detonate what was already brewing among the locals. The real motor of the book is Gringo — unrequited suitor of the Stuart daughter, mentor to one of the Stuart sons — an entertaining, seductive, and multifaceted monster. Gala’s characters are always impressive creations — he gets inside their heads and bodies and libidos — but Gringo is exceptionally magnetic. Early on, he’s seen scamming outsiders who have come to the neighborhood to buy cheap goods. With promises of a motorcycle or an air conditioner, he leads them to his lair, where he robs and kills them — and then, in a burst of inspiration, cuts them up to sell as meat in the more prosperous barrio across the tracks. (“[A]t least he was considerate enough not to sell it here in the neighborhood,” says Maribel, a local.)
Dark jokes about the consumption of human flesh are not unusual in Cuban literature. In a country where every meal calls for meat, the scarcity of beef has led to the widespread poaching of cows, and the slaughtering of one’s own cows is a federal offense, comparable in gravity to the murder of a human being. In Virgilio Piñera 1952 story “La Carne,” characters come up with the ingenious idea of slicing steaks off their own backsides. More recently, Ronaldo Mendez’s “Carne” features two men who are caught poaching cows (a previous pastime of Gringo’s, we learn in Black Cathedral) and, as a punishment, are to be butchered and eaten.
The growing heat provoked by his crimes, combined with a raging desire to make something of himself, leads Gringo to sneak into the United States, where he begins a whole new stage of his life. He becomes a kind of Cuban Don Juan, seducing women — always white and older than he is — who support him in exchange for his “love.” But Gringo’s second American wife, a 57-year-old motorcycle racer who lost a leg in an accident, surprises him by awakening both his admiration — he calls her an “alpha female” — and his genuinely tender feelings. Still, he reflects, “a guy like me can’t afford the luxury of loving someone as sharp as Margaret, who, deep down, doesn’t love anyone” — thus demonstrating his sophisticated understanding of his own precarious position in their arrangement.
Refracting off Gringo’s larger-than-life story are quieter voices, alluring in their different ways, such as Berta, a young lesbian who escapes the neighborhood to become a writer in Havana, or Rogelio, the architect of the benighted cathedral that never gets built. These voices also include the ghosts of the people Gringo has killed, who provide advice — play number eight in the lottery, for example — and foreknowledge to the other characters. But the ghosts also need things done for them, loose ends tied up. And while the living take their demands seriously, they also treat them as one would an annoying neighbor. “[Y]ou have to talk to them, to ghosts, forcefully, to put them in their place,” Gringo remarks.
The social reality depicted in this book is considerably harsher than the versions of Cuba in Gala’s other novels. In the especially touching Sentada en su Verde Limón (2017), we encounter the country in a state of acute deprivation, during the “special period” following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the milieu is bohemian and the dominant mood one of romantic melancholy. The language of Black Cathedral is also more colloquial than in Gala’s other books — in keeping with its oral history form — with only the slightest Caribbean lilt, providing sly, rhythmic embellishments.
The theme of race is everywhere, presented at once as a reality — “If you’re born black, you’re already screwed” — and as a metaphor, usually deployed for humorous effect: “When I returned to the classroom, I was so pale I looked like Michael Jackson”; “Death has that way about it. It attracts you like the most perfect white woman, not one from Barcelona, but a British one.” A female character “was so white and had that I-didn’t-do-it face that gave me the creeps”; another character is described as “peering in with that passing-for-white black man’s face of his.”
Apart from occasional instances that stiffen the prose — “from the first” instead of “right away,” “perhaps” instead of “maybe” — the translation by Anna Kushner is flowingly faithful to the original. Her choice to leave occasional key words in Spanish — “la cuarteria” (tenement building), “guajiro” (country bumpkin) — has the dynamic effect of both reminding us that this is another world and pulling it in close.
For all its brutality, the characters still view Gala’s Cuba nostalgically. Before being arrested and put on death row, Gringo ends up settling down in Portland with Lucy: “I had married her not to take all her dough, but because I needed to be with someone who seemed like she was from over there, from Cuba.” Rulo, a character who moved to Cuba from Russia in his 20s and now owns a bar in the neighborhood where you can “enjoy all kinds of sexual perversions in good company,” says: “I learned everything here, to bathe regularly, to use deodorant, to truly enjoy a woman, and something important: I learned that you can’t be afraid. ‘If you’re afraid, buy a dog,’ as the Cubans say.”
The Black Cathedral is a book about survival — every character is in danger of imminent harm — but there’s a melancholy playfulness that enlivens the tragedy.