Revisiting Malcolm Lowry’s ‘Under the Volcano’ on the Day of the Dead

January 17, 2019 | 1 book mentioned 6 min read

Last year, fighting the anxiety and listlessness that seems to have become the norm of our overstimulated era, I read Under the Volcano for the first time. Since then, I have found myself continually pulling the book off the shelf, returning again and again to its sad, pristinely lyrical pages, as the seasons change and the state of the world remains tumultuous as ever. Under the Volcano is mesmerizing, brokenhearted, almost infinitely discursive, a mescal-sodden, naval-gazing dirge. Though it is resolutely a Modernist work, replete with countless esoteric references and ambiguous plot movements, the implications of the work continue to startle me with their relevance to the Digital Age. Far from the popular notion that Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece is merely “about alcoholism,” Under the Volcano remains a dead-serious bereavement of the insurmountable space that can separate two people sitting side by side.

Under the Volcano takes place in Quauhnahuac, a little town not far from Mexico City. Two volcanos dominate the skyline, their static peaks ever threatening eruption. Our tragic hero is former-British Consul Geoffrey Firmin, who lingers hunch-shouldered in an empty cantina, having booze for breakfast as the annoyed employees set the place up for the day’s business. It is the morning of the Day of the Dead, 1938, and the world, at great distance, is beginning to erupt into World War II.

Firmin’s wife, Yvonne, left him a year previous, and this morning, she’s suddenly come back to try to salvage their relationship, but both nurse old wounds, so a complete restoration seems highly unlikely. Yvonne is anxious, Firmin static and painfully introspective. Also, extremely drunk. Probably the drunkest drunk of literature, Firmin drinks toward a sobriety beyond inebriation as he spends the bulk of the book scheming of ways he could restore his lost connections. “For him life is always just around the corner, in the form of another drink at a new bar.”

Someone really ought to count just how many drinks Firmin takes over the course of the novel. Hundreds, it would possibly seem, his thirst monstrous, insatiable, inescapable. It is all he knows. So, when Yvonne shows up, unexpectedly, he first has trouble registering her presence then, as they begin to talk, he offers her a drink. “You have one and I’ll cheer,” is the reply. They are finally together again, but they still cannot bond. She wants to take him away from Mexico, and he wants her to stay with him, here, drinking below the volcano. Distance, as always, glows frustratingly between them.

They return to their house, attempt to make love, then Yvonne sleeps as Firmin, out of alcohol, stumbles out into the garden he has let go to seed. Lowry writes, “The Consul, an inconceivable anguish of horripilating hangover thunderclapping about his skull, and accompanied by a protective screen of demons gnattering in his ears, became aware that in the horrid event of his being observed by his neighbours it could hardly be supposed he was just sauntering down his garden with some innocent horticultural object in view.”

No, of course Firmin isn’t simply strolling through his overgrown garden. What he’s actually doing is trying to stop himself from trying to stop himself from trying to find the tequila bottle he’d hidden out in the bushes, for a moment such as this. He wants Yvonne to stay, he wants things to work, but he also knows that Yvonne has cheated on him, it becomes clear over the course of the novel, with both Hugh, his half-brother, and Laurelle, his friend. Yvonne, after all, seems rather cozy with both men as they accompany the troubled couple through the day’s festivities, though she maintains that the purpose of her coming to Quauhnahuac was to return to Firmin. There is little admission, and the locus of Yvonne’s loyalty remains indistinct. So, ever-weighing options but choosing none of them, Geoffrey Firmin both pursues and avoids Yvonne as he drinks. And drinks.

This paralysis, Lowry knew, is a living death. “What is man,” Firmin wonders, “but a little soul holding up a corpse?” While Quauhnahuac collectively mourns those who are already dead, the novel’s central characters mourn those who are still alive but with whom all hope of intimacy has been trounced. It can be all-too-tempting to drown everything out with static isolation. Pretty soon, it becomes habitual, a way of life. The underpinnings of Firmin’s drinking are familiar to everyone. Connecting with another person usually demands change, and change is the one thing Volcano’s cast simply cannot do. Thus, in one way or another, each of the novel’s characters lingers in a purgatory of indecision. “Yvonne knew where she was now, but the two alternatives, the two paths, stretched out before her on either side like the arms—the oddly dislocated thought struck her—of a man being crucified.”

Yvonne, in a letter she’d sent to Firmin during their separation, says, “I am perhaps God’s loneliest mortal… My wretchedness is locked up within me… Help me, yes, save me, from all that is enveloping, threatening, trembling, and ready to pour over my head.” The core of her despair, we see, is little different than Firmin’s.

In one of the book’s most haunting scenes, Firmin, drinking away his indecision and doubts, lingers away from Yvonne in a hole-in-the-wall bar while the proprietress, Señora Gregorio, thinks aloud, her ruminations also similar to the thoughts tormenting Firmin. “Once when I was a girl I never used to think I live like I laugh now.” Señora Gregorio speaks in broken English, and her misused words are cubistic and terribly telling: “This—” she glanced contemptuously round the dark little bar, “was never in my mind. Life changes, you know, you can never drink of it.”

And, Firmin quietly corrects her: “Not ‘drink of it,’ Señora Gregorio, you mean ‘think of it.’”

The ultimate tragedy of Under the Volcano is that of humanity’s wasted potential. Can, Lowry pondered, the psyche repair itself? We are capable of such great things, yet we choose mollification and comfort over almost anything—sometimes even over life itself. “I love hell,” Firmin claims. “I can’t wait to get back there. In fact I’m running, I’m almost back there already.” Under the Volcano is Firmin’s attempt to reckon with himself. He is alone, alienated and is finally unable to square himself with the world he has built for himself within the world he has, in many respects, stolen from others. And, in this, he has everything in common with those around him but, from Firmin’s point of view, the other characters are often reduced to minor characters, walk-ons. The only character that truly comforts Firmin is the beverage waiting before him. This minimization is not only Firmin’s: Each of the novel’s characters, in different ways, attempts to reduce the other to satiate the self.

In large part, Malcolm Lowry’s genius was in the depiction of this self-centric blindness. In the grand view of things, every person on earth is a primary character, if only to themselves. Lowry knew keenly that, to a large extent, there is no escaping this bias. Thus, the lens of interpretation always shimmied sideways as Lowry jumped from character to character, even as he let each life bleed through Firmin’s filter.

Inspired by silent-movie subtitles, Lowry peppered the prose with Spanish phrases that, as they repeat, gained meaning and become mysterious, radiant apothegms. No se puede vivir sin amar,” goes the book’s most familiar refrain. One cannot live without love.

And so, without love, Firmin finally dies, dragged out of yet another cantina and murdered by suspicious, crooked police who believe he may be a political spy. Yet, even as he is carried to a ravine, bleeding to death, Firmin continues to pine for Yvonne and for the life they ought to have shared.

It is tempting to equate Lowry with Firmin. The similarities are endless. Lowry, too, was a hopeless alcoholic and lived a famously-troubled life. His first wife, Jan, also left him in Mexico. Yet, in writing Under the Volcano, Lowry attempted what his literary doppelgänger could not: he offered connection, and he believed that this connection would be met. Seventy-one years after its publication, Under the Volcano remains a compelling, widely-read work. In his broken way, Malcolm Lowry succeeded.

Since the book’s composition, the world’s situation has been remade several times over. Volcano’s world is gone but not surpassed. Our newsfeeds are violent, partisan, slapdash, and ugly. We are more connected than ever, yet our sense of isolation has only grown. Like all truly classic works of art, Under the Volcano remains a book startlingly about us, about this time in history. For, like the counter-clockwise rotation of Quauhnahuac’s Ferris wheel—ridden by the mourners who know they, too, will someday be dead—all things repeat. We stave off our potentiality with comfort and distraction.

Under the Volcano reminds us that we cannot live without love, yet we cannot truly love unless we are willing to fight our paralysis. Again and again, no se puede vivir sin amar flashes across the page, and the phrase becomes a chant, a mantra, a prayer: No se puede vivir sin amar. No se puede vivir sin amar. No se puede vivir sin amar. If only we would heed it.

received his MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University and lives near Seattle with his wife and children. He is querying his debut novel and, along with The Millions, his writing has appeared on Image Journal Online. Come say hello on Twitter @sethlriley or [email protected].

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