Under the Volcano [Malcolm Lowry]

An old woman with a face of a highly intellectual black gnome the Consul always thought (mistress to some gnarled guardian of the mine beneath the garden once, perhaps), and carrying the inevitable mop, the trapeador, or American husband, over her shoulder, shuffled out of the ‘front’ door, scraping her feet – the shuffling and the scraping however seemingly unidentified, controlled by separate mechanisms.

I crept out from Under the Volcano, blurry and spent.  All I remembered was the ending, shocking through it’s unexpectedness, and the love story, the beautiful but doomed and tragic love story.  She came back, like M Laurelle in chapter one, that’s all I could think about for days afterwards, she came back.

The ‘she’ is Yvonne, who has come back to Mexico on the day of the dead festival to try and reconcile with, and rescue her alcoholic husband, the ex-consul Geoffrey Firmin.  The next twelve hours sees Yvonne and his half-brother Hugh trying to penetrate the protective haze of mescal and whisky, to ostensibly save him from himself, and endeavor the Consul knows is pointless, he is too far from the shore to be saved, and lacks the will power to save himself.

Allegedly one of the hardest books to read, Under the Volcano reads like an incoherent stream of consciouness, it reminded me, in style, of The Green House by Mario Vargas Llosa, the incomprehension of what I was reading.  But this is ultimately what makes the book such a hurricane of a read.  Lowry, who suffered from alcoholism himself, creates such a powerful evocation of an alcoholic, Firmin’s consciousness veering from lucid clarity to irrelevant babbling, as he guiltily steals away for a drink, or resists for no reason other than he can, for a time at least.
In defence of this Lowry commented that there were layers in the book that would eventually be stripped away after a second, third or even fourth reading.  He wrote the book mostly from memory (astonishing considering the detail and feel he gives the location) in Canada and read passages out loud to his wife and friends while creating it.  You can almost feel the pen in one hand, bottle in the other, entire chapters re-written (the book took years to complete) in a fit of alcoholic fuelled creativity.  But that is supposition, Lowry so cleverly writes Firmin that you feel like an alcoholic while reading it, and when you finish it’s like sobering up.

In a world turned upside down, the Consul feels more lucid the less sober he is, and there are times when you genuinely believe he will pull through, you want him too.  But as the hours tick by, a storm brews and the Consul barrels along to the end of the day and after the climatic ending, you are left rolling slowly to a stop, taking in everything and let it slowly float away.

Although abstention is recommended for addiction, I have to admit that I will be reading this again.

There the bird was still, a long winged dark furious shape, a little world of fierce despairs and dreams, and memories of floating high above Popocateptel, mile on mile, to drop through the wilderness and alight, watching, in the timberline ghosts of ravaged mountain trees.

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