Mexico. The land of intrigue south of the border. The place where Dean and Sal headed for ultimate kicks. The destination of choice for taking it on the lam, as in “I’m goin’ way down south, way down to Mexico way” in the Hendrix reading of “Hey Joe”. So many images of Mexico, most of them on the dark side. Think back to the opening scene of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, where Humphrey Bogart is down and out in Tampico.
I wanted to get away from the endless Chicago winter. I wanted to feel sun on my face and soft breezes blowing through my hair. I wanted to go to Mexico. So I booked a flight to Querétero, a colonial town in the central highlands, and packed my bags. What to read, though? Graham Greene? Not in the mood. I wanted something dark that penetrated to the heart of my image of Mexico, but I wanted a writer other than Greene. Browsing through the stacks at the library, I found it. Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry.
Lowry started writing Under the Volcano in the late 1930s, finally publishing it in 1947. The novel tells the story of the ex-British Consul of Quauhnahuac, the Indian name for Cuernavaca. The Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, has resigned his post because Britain has severed diplomatic relations with the Mexican government over Mexico’s nationalization of its oil reserves. We see him in 1938, on his last day on earth: November 2, the Day of the Dead.
The novel opens one year later, with the Consul’s sometime friend, Jacques Laruelle, reflecting on Firmin’s life as he walks along the barranca (ravine) in Quauhnahuac and dodges into a cantina to avoid an evening downpour. We get just enough background on Geoffrey Firmin to help form an image of the man. Firmin was born in India. His mother died when he was just a boy. His father remarried and then vanished into the Himalayas one day, never to return. The second wife died soon after, leaving Geoffrey alone to care for his step-brother, Hugh. The Consul and Laruelle were friends for a brief time in childhood, where they both spent a summer at the English seaside home of noted British poet Abraham Taskerson. Geoffrey was staying with the Taskersons until his school term started, and Laruelle, a young Frenchman who had met the Taskersons on holiday in Normandy, was there as a guest. Then there is mention of an incident during the First World War, in which Firmin, as a naval lieutenant aboard a submarine destroyer disguised as a merchant vessel, had captured and destroyed a German U-Boat, for which he received the British Distinguished Service Cross. The event was not without controversy: during the passage back to England, all of the German officers were incinerated in the ship’s furnaces. The German crew members were unharmed.
There was an investigation. Firmin was first court-martialed for the event, acquitted, and then received his decoration. After the war, Firmin joined the Diplomatic Service, and went from one consular post to another, each more obscure, until he ended up in Quauhnahuac. Did the affair of the U-Boat cast a lasting pall over the Consul, or did some other demons drive him? All we know is that by the time he reconnects with Laruelle in Mexico, he is in the downward spiral of acute alcoholism. As Laruelle sits drinking in the cantina and thinking about Firmin, the owner of the cinema next door to the cantina gives Laruelle a book that he had found in the theatre. It is a book of Elizabethan plays that Geoffrey had lent Laruelle a year earlier. He leafs through the book, and a letter that had been folded up inside falls out. Laruelle picks it up. It is a letter that the Consul had written to his wife, Yvonne, after she had left him. He had written it in a state of inebriation and despair, and never posted it. Laruelle reads the letter. It is a desperate plea for Yvonne to return, as well as a frightening insight into the drunken state of the Consul. Laruelle crumples the letter and then burns it.
After this long flash forward, we emerge into the day, one year earlier, when the consul’s wife does indeed return, and the events leading to his death are set in motion.
Yvonne finds Firmin alone in the bar at the Bella Vista hotel as she arrives early in the morning after travelling from Acapulco. He is quite the worse for wear after heavy drinking the night before with his acquaintance Dr. Vigil, but he is still coherent. He and the doctor had been celebrating All-Saints day at the Red Cross Ball. Yvonne and Firmin walk home – to the Consul’s house – and Yvonne learns that the Consul’s brother, Hugh, is staying with him. Back at the house, Yvonne relives some of her memories of her time as the Consul’s wife. The Consul manages a few therapeutic drinks, and then passes out. There follows an idyllic interlude where Hugh and Yvonne ride horses to the old brewery, the Consul wakes up and finds various hidden bottles of tequila and whiskey which he drinks to cure his shakes and hangover, and the three of them finally set out for the nearby town of Tomalín, where they will watch a bull-riding event.
On the way to the bull riding, we get some insight into the main characters, through flashbacks, and we are first-hand witnesses to the depths of Geoffrey Firmin’s personal hell. As a study of alcoholism, there are few books that compare to Under the Volcano. The Consul is at the stage in his addiction where he is plunging headlong toward the bottom, but hasn’t quite reached it. He is cut off from his feelings, he wants to reconcile with Yvonne, but he is constantly thinking of where he will get his next drink.
At one point, in an ill-fated stop at the house of Jacques Laruelle on the way to Tomalín, Laruelle prepares cocktails for the four of them – Geoffrey, Yvonne, Hugh, and himself. The Consul doesn’t touch his drink. He ponders quitting altogether. The mood at Laruelle’s is tense, because Laruelle and Yvonne had had an affair prior to her leaving Geoffrey. Laruelle still has feelings for Yvonne, but Yvonne wants to reconcile with the Consul. She pleads with Geoffrey to make an excuse and leave with her. But the Consul can’t. He wants a drink. He wants to stop. He tells Hugh and Yvonne to go on into town, that he will meet them at the bus terminal. Laruelle goes to take a shower before going to play tennis with Dr. Vigil. Firmin decides to call his physician, Dr. Guzman, for help with his addiction. He tries to call Guzman, but he has forgotten the number. He tries looking the number up in the phone book, but he is sweating so profusely and shaking so badly that he can’t find the number.
Then the desire to drink takes over: “He would need a drink to do this. He ran for the staircase but halfway up, shuddering, in a frenzy, started down again. I brought the tray down. No, the drinks are still up there. He came on the mirador and drank down all the drinks in sight. […] The Consul finished the contents of the cocktail shaker and came downstairs quietly.”
This will be the pattern for the rest of the day. He moves forward, finds drink, drinks heavily, and his delirium subsides for a while. He moves forward again. The ostensible destination for the day’s outing is Tomalín, to see the bull-riding. But the Consul’s real destination is the nearby town of Parián. There, in a lowdown dive of a cantina called the Farolito, just a short walk through the forest from Tomalín, is where he can sit in the darkened bar and drink Mescal, his personal poison, and try to come to grips with what is going on around him.
It is here that his fate awaits him. The day grinds inevitably toward this end, with the Consul trying to fuel himself with enough drink to keep going, while at the same time trying to hide his imbibing from Yvonne. Time itself decelerates to the crystalline, amber slowness that can only be achieved when one is, like the Consul, completely and utterly intoxicated. “Minutes seem like hours, hours seem like days,” as Robert Johnson has described it.
The other characters in the novel have also come up short in life. Laruelle is a film-maker who had some success in Europe, but who detests Hollywood and is just marking time in Mexico, with perhaps his best work behind him. Yvonne showed early promise in Hollywood films as a child actress, but has been unable to make the transition to adult roles. The Consul’s brother, Hugh, was highly popular as a guitar player and leader of a jazz band in England, but he walked away from fame, doubting his talent. He has leftist sympathies, and supports the republican loyalists against Franco in the Spanish civil war that is being fought across the Atlantic. In fact, he has plans to leave for Spain on a boat carrying dynamite to aid the faltering loyalist cause. These characters surround the Consul in a Mexico which resembles Dante’s Inferno.
The twin volcanoes Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl loom over the town, giving the novel its name, and providing a brooding, hellish background for the events of the story. The barranca, a deep gash of a ravine, runs through the center, hinting at circles of hell below that which the Consul and his friends currently inhabit.
Lowry’s style in Under the Volcano can best be described as cinematic. As the Consul and Yvonne walk to the Consul’s house in the morning, their dialogue is punctuated with exclamations like “BOX! ARENA TOMALÍN. EL BALÓN vs EL REDONDILLO” – posters and signs proclaiming the boxing match to be held later that day. The gloom of the Consul’s condition is contrasted with the festive atmosphere of the Day of the Dead celebrations. The Ferris wheel in the center of town comes in and out of site. Posters of a second rate film by Peter Lorre showing at the cinema constantly appear “Los Manos de Orlac. Con Peter Lorre.” Also, the symbol of the Consul’s death appears and reappears throughout the day – a horse with the number 7 branded onto its hip, ridden by an Indian who later appears dying at the side of the road on the bus trip to Tomalín.
In addition to the cinematic use of posters, repeating visual symbols and the setting of the town under the twin volcanoes, Lowry captures the interior monologue of the characters, particularly that of the Consul. When he has reached the cantina called the Farolito in Perián, we see the consul’s thoughts, reflecting the state he has reached: “he thought for a minute with a freezing detached almost amused calm of the dreadful night inevitably awaiting him whether he drank much more or not, his room shaking with daemonic orchestras, the snatches of fearful tumultuous sleep, interrupted by voices which were really dogs barking, or by his own name being continually repeated by imaginary parties arriving, the vicious shouting, the strumming, the slamming, the pounding, the battling with insolent archfiends, the avalanche breaking down the door, the proddings from under the bed and always, outside, the cries, the wailing, the terrible music …“.
Lowry uses the Joycean technique of packing sentences with multiple levels of information and meaning: “the water still trickling into the pool – God, how deadeningly slowly- filled the silence between them … There was something else; the Consul imagined he still heard the music of the ball, which must have long since ceased, so that this silence was pervaded as with a stale thudding of drums. Pariah: that meant drums too. Parián. It was doubtless the almost tactile absence of the music however, that made it so peculiar the trees should be apparently shaking to it, an illusion investing not only the garden but the plains beyond , the whole scene before his eyes, with horror.” He remembers the drums from the debauch of the night before, which invokes Pariah – a word with multiple meanings here – an outcast, originally a drummer in Tamil festivals, but also a reference to the Pariah dogs that follow the Consul around wherever he goes in the town. And Pariah evokes Parián – his dark village of refuge and fate.
The structure of Under the Volcano is less like that of a modern novel, in that the development of the characters drives the action of the novel forward, and more like that of a classic Greek tragedy, where the destiny of the characters is sealed and inescapable. The Consul, like Oedipus, is drawn to Parián, and it is only a matter of when and how, not if, he will meet this fate. Along the way, the novel paints a dark picture of the world in the 1930s, with the rise of fascism and Nazism and the doomed struggle of the loyalists in Spain against Franco’s forces of repression.
And Mexico? The Mexico I once visited for a week was sunny and warm, with an eternally blue sky. The town was colorful – crowded with people from all walks of life – and filled with music and flowers. The Mexico of Under the Volcano that I entered each day as I sat on the veranda reading was a dark place, filled with foreboding, broken only occasionally by scenes of great beauty. I found this dichotomy quite satisfying.