Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano

By James Calemine

“A corpse will be transported by express!”
                –Geoffrey Firmin

Since the Day of the Dead approaches, I believe Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece, Under The Volcano, stands as the book for you to revisit–or for most of you to discover. Lowry, born in 1909 and died in 1957, only published two books while he was alive–Ultramarine (1933) and Under The Volcano (1947).

The rest of his books, Hear Us O Lord from Thy Dwelling Place, Lunar Caustic, Dark As The Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid and October Ferry To Gabriola were published posthumously. Under The Volcano had gone out of print before Lowry died. Now, the book is lauded as one of literature’s finest. Death proves a great career move for many writers.

Under The Volcano transpires in one day–the Day of the Dead, on November 2, 1939. The book reveals the last day of alcoholic British consul Geoffrey Firmin’s life in Quauhnahuac, Mexico, during the Spanish Civil War. 

In 1984, John Huston adapted a film starring Albert Finney and Jacqueline Bisset based on the book. The book began as a short story. It’s a visual, cinematic book…

The story begins with Firmin’s (the Consul) wife, Yvonne, returning to him after a year-long separation. The Consul’s alcoholism increased during that year as he felt isolated in a remote Mexican hotel under two volcanoes (Popocatepetl & Iztaccihuatl). The Consul’s half-brother, Hugh, and longtime friend M. Laurelle serve as sinister distractions to the Consul since they both had an affair with Yvonne, and they both wait for her return even though Yvonne loves the Consul and wishes for him to get sober and for them to start anew.

Lowry writes vivid descriptions of the idyllic Mexican landscape with emotive precision. It’s a sad book, and dark omens lace the story as the 12 chapters unfold. A ghost dog appears throughout the story as some sad symbol. Other recurring images include evil omens, cigarettes, Mescal, Christ, black clouds, volcanoes, film, betrayal, guitars, William Blackstone and bullfights. Lowry even writes musicians Eddie Lange and Django Reinhardt into the story.

Obvious similarities between this book and James Joyce’s Ulysses exist. Lowry proved to be a big fan of Joseph Conrad and Conrad Aiken. Lowry once visited the latter. Towards the final hours of the story (on page 276), Lowry sets up the final scenes: 

“Sunset. Eddies of green and orange birds scattered aloft with ever wider circlings like rings on water. Two little pigs disappeared into the dust at a gallop. A woman passed swiftly, balancing on her head, with the grace of a Rebecca, a small light bottle. Then, the Salon Ofelia at last behind them, there was no more dust. And their path became straight, leading on through the roar of water past the bathing place, where, reckless, a few late bathers lingered, toward the forest.

“Straight ahead, in the northeast, lay the volcanoes, the towering dark clouds behind them steadily mounting the heavens. The storm that had already dispatched its outriders, must have been traveling in a circle: the real onset was yet to come. Meantime the wind had dropped and it was lighter again, though the sun had gone down at their back slightly to their left, in the southwest, where a red blaze fanned out into the sky over their heads…”

The reader follows the three main characters through the Day of the Dead, and their own thoughts and previous transgressions right up to the point when the fascist police accuse the Consul of a crime he did not commit. Ultimately, they shoot him. The final line of the book chills the blood: “Somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine.”

Under The Volcano counts as one of my favorites. Malcolm Lowry contends as a writer to be explored. No se puede vivir sin amar

www.jamescalemine.com

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