The Maybe-Messiah and His Grandmother’s Ghost: On Olga Tokarczuk’s ‘The Books of Jacob’


At last, it has arrived. Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s dark star epic, The Books of Jacob, has been released in English with Jennifer Croft’s stunning translation. For Ms. Tokarczuk’s English-speaking readers, The Books of Jacob has long hovered on the horizon, promising the full realization of the powerful and idiosyncratic vision we’ve encountered in books such as Flights and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. That her Nobel nomination was rumored to be greatly based on the accomplishments of this book has only magnified the anticipation. And now, it is here.

The Books of Jacob is a singular, anomalous work, a massive novel overwhelmingly researched and intricately plotted. Rife with paradoxes, the book is a fictional rendering of factual events centered around a controversial and fascinating figure named Jacob Frank who instigated a largely forgotten religious movement in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th century. Though it is an unabashed epic in scope—a book that luxuriates in detail—it is not a slog. In fact, it moves briskly, its tone often leaning toward satire but never sacrificing its humanity, tragic sensibilities, or deep sense of mystery.

The novel portrays the life of Jacob Frank, as seen through the eyes of those surrounding him, opening first with the story of one Father Chmielowski, a Catholic priest who “knows the world only through books” and has written an encyclopedic volume titled New Athens, “a compendium of knowledge of the sort that could be found in every home.” Father Chmielowski breaks from custom to borrow books from a prominent Jewish businessman named Elisha Shorr, and their interaction hints at an alternate reality that could have unfolded between their Catholic and Jewish communities. And, in another turn of imagined reality, Tokarczuk portrays the fictionalized meeting—and subsequent friendship—of real-world poet Elżbieta Drużbacka and Father Chmielowski. These quiet and mutually edifying interactions—first between a Catholic man and a Jewish man and then between a man and a woman—serve as an ironically peaceful false start. For, after this, things turn strange.

At the Shorr’s house, Frank’s ailing grandmother Yente has swallowed an amulet intended to keep her from dying during an upcoming wedding and “is surprised to discover that she can easily slide out of her body and be suspended over it; she looks right at her own face, fallen and pale, a strange feeling, but soon she floats away, gliding along on the drafts of air, on the vibrations of sound, passing without difficulty through wooden walls and doors.” She floats through the story while the family is now burdened with a body that refuses to die. Yente provides bird’s-eye witness to public and private acts alike, her presence interpolated at pivotal moments with gentle reminders: “Yente, who sees all,” “Yente, who is never far.”

Providing a counterpoint to Yente’s detached witness is Nahman, a rabbi and Jacob Frank’s troubled biographer whose writings intersperse the main narrative with gospel-like first-hand accounts. Nahman, who was raised in a milieu peopled by “Kabbalists with clouded eyes,” shadows his enigmatic acquaintance in Smyrna, where he witnesses his beginnings as an indomitable and confident religious rebel. Born Yankiele Leybowicz, he renames himself Frank, which “means foreign. Nahman knows Jacob likes this.” In fact, Tokarczuk tells us, “in every language Jacob speaks you can detect a foreign accent.”

Jacob Frank “always has the garland of an audience around him,” and yet “you can’t tell if he’s actually joking in what he says or being serious. He looks you straight in the eye, says a sentence like he’s firing a shot, and then waits for a reaction.” Nahman muses that “prophets must come from elsewhere, must suddenly appear, seem strange, out of the ordinary. Be shrouded in mystery…” This otherworldly man, it begins to occur to those around him, may be the long-awaited Messiah. His brazen assuredness is mesmerizing, if perplexing, and he comes to be called “the Lord” by his increasing throng of followers.

Mainline and esoteric Abrahamic theologies alike are utterly malleable in Jacob’s hands and conflations abound. “In this religion of the end of days,” we are told, “all three religions will be braided into one.” In this way, Frank recalls Sabbatai Zevi, a 17th-century messiah claimant who notoriously converted to Islam to escape death. Jacob Frank is Jewish but, after arriving in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, he continues to dress in a fashion associated with Islam. Eventually, he persuades his Jewish followers to be baptized into the Catholic faith, to the shock of all. And, upon being baptized, Frank’s faithful are assigned new “Christian” names, which results in confusion for Frankists and readers alike.

With each theological development, the central question deepens: does he intend to truly reunite the three Abrahamic faiths, or does he simply use conversion as a means to better navigate the local social structures? It is not so easy to say: again and again, he is regularly overcome with ecstatic visions and seems to possess inexplicable power. His followers know that they defy him at their peril, and the surrounding Jewish and Catholic communities struggle to understand what is happening. And, all the while, ethereal Yente looks on.

As the novel progresses, Frank takes on Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh-esque dimensions. In his system, “divinity and sinfulness are everlastingly connected.” Religious rite and convention are abandoned, and rumors of sexually-charged secret rituals are confirmed in a bizarre ceremony wherein Frank’s cousin Hayah, who also seems in possession of unexplained power, is presented half naked to a group of men—including several family members. Supposedly, “the Torah itself has entered… Hayah; that is what beams out now through her skin.” Throughout the book, Frank attempts to elevate femininity conceptually to actually subjugate the women around him. Thus, women remain at his beck and call—to the point that, when he falls ill, he demands to be nursed with breast milk.

“The Lord” revises theological and social norms to maintain purchase upon his followers. The inherent slipperiness of his mystical outlook provides a convenient framework to contain the cognitive dissonance required to follow his leadership. He presents himself as both cunning and aloof. Even when tried for heresy by the Catholic church, Frank neither refutes nor acknowledges claims that he believes himself to be the Messiah.

As the book continues, Frank’s obstacles become numerous, yet he always manages to emerge victorious. He escapes betrayal, a life sentence to prison, war, massive debts, and the trouble brought on by his ever-precarious position. Through it all, “Jacob’s spirits were not dampened… On the contrary: this chaos was giving him strength.”

However, not all of the chaos remains in his control: the book portrays the evolution of the previously insular setting as it becomes increasingly exposed to what lies beyond its borders: Descartes, Paraguay, Africa, Alaska, Canada, hurricanes, Kant, Mozart. Foreshadowing the Holocaust, a Catholic priest, annoyed with the Jewish community, longs to do “something decisive, irreversible.” And toward the novel’s close come reckonings with the Enlightenment and the Napoleonic wars. The world that produced “the Lord” is changing, and the relative (though imperfect) calm he has exploited is disappearing.

With The Books of Jacob, Olga Tokarczuk has performed an incredible reversal: while the real-life Frank fabricated to conceal, Tokarczuk has invented to reveal. Through the use of fiction, Tokarczuk fleshes out what has been lost to history through a portrayal replete with beautiful period illustrations, the ghostly presence of a forgotten woman who cannot quite die, and a cacophonous ecosystem of characters. Especially moving are the closing portrayals of the characters that have been most used by Frank: Eva, his daughter and heir-apparent; Hayah, his cousin; and Nahman, his devoted apostle. To name just a few.

The Books of Jacob is a sui generis work that presents a beautifully nuanced take upon belief. Lesser writers incorporating this almost unbelievable set of real-life events into fiction would have likely veered into easy mockery and dismissal. As Frank’s health deteriorates and his tenure as the “maybe-Messiah” comes to a close, Tokarczuk’s narrative gracefully considers the legacy of the Frankists. Jacob was an extraordinary swindler, but was there any part of his life that deserves our pity? His followers may have been naïve and beguiled, but was it so wrong to hope for more than the world had so far offered them? In the end, The Books of Jacob provides narrative closure but few answers. Like Yente, we are left hovering in consideration over this beautiful and dizzying book that will almost certainly become a defining work of its generation.

Grace and Oblivion in the Forgotten Neighborhoods of ‘Shaky Town’


Knowing full well that every city’s defining sights take up only a scant percentage of the whole, Lou Mathews has spent much of his life chronicling the ignored sectors of Los Angeles. His stories investigate the ways in which our best and worst tendencies play out in community—and the paradoxical manner in which community itself both preys upon and elevates the individuals within it. Yet, like the broken neighborhoods his fiction documents, Lou Mathews’s work has remained rather close to the shadows, its many qualities passed over as readers make their way to established literary landmarks. This is an unfair oversight that his newest work, Shaky Town, is poised to correct.

Shaky Town is a tough and beautiful mural of a novel constructed though interwoven short stories that explore the streets of East Los Angeles in the 1980s. Eschewing even the faintest strain of stereotypical L.A. glam, Shaky Town is populated with chain link fences instead of pools, pollution instead of seashores, and the “watercolor sadness of smog,” as an art professor tells his students.

Like the city itself, Shaky Town is situated precariously on a latticework of geological, interpersonal, and psychological fault lines. The characters and locations crisscross each other’s narratives, providing the novel’s natural sense of zoning. Throughout the book, our through-line is Emiliano, the self-appointed mayor of Shaky Town. We are first introduced to Emiliano in “Emiliano Part I: The Mayor Proclaims” as he chats up a “constituent” at a bus stop, trying to convince him that they share a knowledge of Spanish. When the “constituent” denies this, Emiliano says, “You know burrito. You know taco. Enchilada. Maybe even chile relleno… That’s part of the language,” which causes a chuckle and a small degree of camaraderie. In Lou Mathews’s capable hands, it is enough.

And it is essential: after this fleeting moment, the stories veer sharply into tragedy, beginning with Emiliano recapping his long life in Shaky Town. Employed, years prior, by the movie industry to make breakaway furniture for fight scenes, Emiliano lost three of his fingers while working drunk after his son died of polio. “I measured wrong… The table saw didn’t care.”

Soon after, in “Crazy Life,” we follow Dulcie Gomez as she goes to the police station to advocate for her boyfriend, Chuey, freshly arrested for his role as wheel man in a drive-by. Chuey now shares a cell with the Mephistophelian Sleepy Chavez, who did the actual shooting and threw the gun out the window to blur responsibility. Dulcie knows if Chuey betrays Sleepy, he is putting himself in immediate danger from the gang. But, if he doesn’t, he will take the fall and enter the legal system. So, Dulcie watches helplessly as Chuey shuts down in indecision and the lawyer “packs his briefcase and walks away, shaking hands with everybody. The TV is waiting for him outside.” Though Chuey will eventually choose, we already know neither choice leads to good things.

“The Garlic Eater” finds Mr. Kim buying a local grocery store, in which he proudly displays Korean flags and products behind the counter. His wife “thought it was foolish to put the only goods their customers wouldn’t steal behind the counter, but Mr. Kim liked the display.” Immediately after opening, Mr. Kim is greeted with the tough realities of his new neighborhood and, shortly after his wife is brutally beaten by the junkies he is trying to fend off, he decides to stand his ground—and to buy a gun.

Providing the emotional center of the book, “Emiliano Part II: A Curse on Chavez Ravine” recounts the redevelopment Chavez Ravine in the 1950’s to accommodate the construction of Dodger Stadium. The stadium, Emiliano says, is built upon a place that once was “like living in the hill country of Mexico. No paved streets, no sewers, no electricity… It smelled like Mexico. Woodsmoke, chiles… tortillas, and beans. Roosters woke you in the morning, but you could see City Hall.” But the city unscrupulously repossessed the land from residents, and the final holdouts were forcibly removed. Emiliano recounts how his Aunt Lupe fought the city by chaining herself to her house. When she failed to stop the demolition, she put a curse “on any Latino who played for the Dodgers.”

Then, with “The Moon Reaches Down for Me Like the Fist in a Siqueiros Painting,” we return to the book’s current time, as an art professor punctuates his commute with liquor stores and drinks his way home, “safe: inside the car, behind the [sun]glasses, surrounded by music” while his mother is in a nearby hospital, dying from cancer.

In “Con Safos Rifa,” aimless machismo drives a group of St. Patrick’s high school students to arrange a fight with students from a rival school. As it turns out, the fight would have been a rout aided by local gang members had the St. Patrick’s students not first been arrested while waiting for their opponents to arrive.

Again and again, oddly graceful moments present themselves as the antidotes to the haze of violence and self-destruction. Emiliano, in “Emiliano Part III: Last Dance,” delivers a speech praising a neighbor he resents at her 75th birthday party after the priest scheduled to give the speech doesn’t show up. Emiliano paints a lush and flattering portrait for the crowd and, though he doesn’t believe his own words, his speech is a balm for his neighbor’s hidden emotional wounds. After the speech, he dances with her while the band plays her unfaithful late husband’s favorite song, then he leads “her to the dark corner of the gym so that her family won’t see her crying and blame me.”

In the eponymous novella occupying the bulk of the book’s closing, Brother Cyril, the newly appointed dean of discipline at St. Patrick’s, discovers his position was previously occupied by a priest who had molested numerous children. Learning the school’s new marble alter table had recently been donated by the diocese in exchange for the school’s willingness to harbor the priest, Brother Cyril takes a hammer and destroys the gift. His faith in the church shattered, he turns to alcohol and prostitution.

Finally, with “Emiliano Part IV: Ride the Black Horse,” we are presented with a panoramic view of the earthquake we’ve long been sensing. Providing a perfect coda, Emiliano describes how the landscape itself loses solidity. “The freeways looked like gray snakes rippling upward… The hills of Elysian Park humped and twisted.”

Lou Mathews never shies away from exploring the way integrity so often becomes a liability diametrically opposed to self-preservation. Again and again, the social, emotional, and economic fissures that striate Shaky Town are exposed by sudden bursts of pent-up aggression. Our choice of actions may not be easy, Mathews reminds us, but it is usually clear: though there is often no reward, do the right thing.

With Shaky Town, Lou Mathews has constructed a prismatic singularity replete with elegant and empathetic renderings of people forced to weigh difficult choices. The stories gleam, despite their sadness, with the glow of every person’s potential to rise above the wreckage that surrounds them or, if nothing else, to go down swinging for what they know, beyond all else, is true.

László Krasznahorkai Comes Home

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This September, Ottilie Mulzet’s superb English translation of László Krasznahorkai’s masterpiece Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming will be published, completing the novel cycle he began with Satantango and continued with The Melancholy of Resistance and War & War. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is the culmination of Krasznahorkai’s labors, a manic Greek chorus that infuses festive Technicolor into his multifaceted, bleak vision. It is Krasznahorkai’s funniest and most profound book and, quite possibly, also his most accessible. Krasznahorkai has hinted that this may be his final novel and, if that’s the case, then it is a tremendous sendoff to one of our most talented writers.

Baron is set in a dead-end Hungarian village riddled with gossips and backstabbers and structured with chapters ominously named after drumbeats. Plastic bags swirl through the air, and a gang of frightening—yet surprisingly human—Neo-Nazi bikers patrol the town. Bitter pomp and fierce one-upmanship reign freely. Everything in this remote village feels strangely universal: everyone blames refugees and “the Gypsies” for all of the country’s ills. Politics are waged in faultfinding and bogus positioning. Then, without explanation, a huge convoy of black luxury cars speeds through town, hypnotizing the residents as they pass. Approximating horsemen of the apocalypse, their procession preludes the village’s downfall.

In a bramble patch just outside town, a world famous professor lives in a hovel fashioned from garbage. The Wittgenstein-like professor has renounced attachment to the world (including, Krasznahorkai points out, his social media apps) and works to purge his thoughts in hopes of attaining his own type of nirvana. The experiment is short lived; he wakes one day to find his long-neglected daughter standing outside his hut, flanked with reporters and accosting him with a bullhorn, demanding he acknowledge her.

Back in town, Baron Béla Wenckheim arrives on the train. Despite his grandiose image, the Baron is befuddled and aloof and is only there because his family paid his horrible gambling debts in South America in exchange for his pledge to disappear and not cause the family further embarrassment. So, in hopes of returning to the place he once knew—and to the woman he once loved—the Baron disembarks only to be greeted with grand fanfare, replete with speeches from both the mayor and the police chief, detailing the ways they will use the funds they mistakenly assume the Baron intends to donate. That the whole thing, like Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin, echoes Christ’s Passion is no mistake. The Baron suffers abandonment, accidentally insults the woman he returned to, and, in agony, finds himself wandering in a Gethsemane-like forest, vying for God’s attention. After his exit from the narrative, his clothes are divided and ruined by a homeless mob.

Coinciding with the Baron’s Gethsemane, one of the book’s most striking scenes describes the professor sitting in an empty train station, weighing belief in God. Though he knows he cannot prove—or even necessarily believe—in God, the professor considers the clear repercussions he must accept if the only alternative to our troubled existence is nonexistence. The denial of God is terrifying because the chaos we experience in our individual lives is only a repetition of the blind chaos gripping the universe. Without greater providence, culture is stunted and chaos is the only reality.

Krasznahorkai is an uncommonly generous writer. Even as he teases, maligns, and undermines his characters, he remains empathetic to their plights and blind spots, for he knows that even the most evil deeds are conjured by brokenness. Unable to find solace in the possibility of transcendence, Krasznahorkai’s characters find themselves mired in uneasy limbo, defending themselves from the chaotic world that grips them. And, finally, time runs out. The book’s closing passage is shocking, powerful, hilarious, inevitable, and about the darkest curtain drop one could imagine as the majority of the characters are wiped from existence without much explanation.

Almost every section in Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming runs about 70 pages, and these sections flow easily as Krasznahorkai’s meandering prose swaps points of view at each paragraph break, allowing his characters’ opinions to mesh and conflict. Incredible distance is covered in an oddly intimate, if disorienting, way. While this tactic can make a new reader initially seasick, the reader who sticks with it finds the going easier and the rewards many. The emotional and psychological realizations Krasznahorkai can evoke are singular and breathtaking.

In sharp contrast to the perfectly whittled dialogue so prevalent in fiction today, very few direct quotations ever appear in Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming. Rather, characters endlessly regurgitate and revise their statements, often describing a single action with two or more verbs in an attempt to either more accurately describe their actions or, more likely, better justify themselves. Perhaps they are being honest in what they report, and perhaps not. We never quite know, for these character’s truest selves—as in real life—remain inscrutable.

This, more than anything else, is what makes Krasznahorkai’s work worth reading. As the world seeks to reduce and streamline communication, and as our attention spans are attenuated by our thirst for digital-world dopamine-hits, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming presents a powerful rebuttal to our infatuation with easy, saccharine anger. We are, all of us, clumsy egomaniacs, and the truth is that things are messy, hard to understand, and almost impossible to pin down. As Krasznahorkai’s ragtag characters struggle forward, he reminds us that the words we speak are mere indicators of our vast, submerged realities.

These days, the general feeling is that the world has moved on from long, difficult novels. They are irrelevant, plodding dinosaurs whose sole purpose is to establish the gravitas of the author behind them. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is the hard reset, capturing our frantic, pessimistic moment with frightening verisimilitude. The style is challenging, yes, but it is not self-serving. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming calls into question our acceptance of the crippling status quo, delivering universal truths in a way that few books can anymore. It is precisely the novel we need in these difficult, foreboding times.

Reading Roberto Bolaño’s Final Wake-Up Call

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Before we get too far, I have to be candid: Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is a book from which one must recover. I’m serious. No book since Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian has left me in such a state of utter, cosmic helplessness. So, if you’re here because you’re trying to decide whether or not to read Bolaño’s 900-page opus, I can only say this: it must be read, but no shame to any person who cannot.

And don’t, I would add, read it when you’re sick. I can say this with some confidence because I read it recently when I was sick, parked on the couch while my little kids played and did homeschool at the dining room table, and the dark fingers reaching up from the pages constituted a private hell to which my cheerful family remained utterly oblivious. 2666 is taxing on the best of days, to say nothing of when you’re all body aches and fever.

2666 was Bolaño’s last book—published in 2004 with Natasha Wimmer’s English translation arriving in 2008—and the grandest realization of his bleak, charged vision. The central thrust is necessarily vague, but basically here it is: For a host of reasons, a cast of seemingly unrelated characters—a scholar, a sports reporter, a celebrity detective, and a reclusive writer (along with the three literary critics who are hoping to find him)—have all come to Santa Teresa, a stand-in for Ciudad Juárez, a city haunted by the mysterious murders of hundreds of women. No one knows how or why the women die. They simply turn up in the desert.

Bolaño’s signature conflation of high and low literature has always been underscored by a palpable sense of dread, but in Santa Teresa that dread builds into a haunting wail that billows across the desert and envelopes his characters and readers. For hundreds of pages. Several times, we feel we’re close to an explanation for the crimes but, of course, an explanation never comes. And central to this tormented stasis is the never-explained 666 in 2666.

It is easy to reduce Bolaño’s vision to a familiar apocalyptic trope: everything’s going to hell, everything’s burning up. But to do so is to misread both Bolaño’s book and the purpose of apocalyptic literature, which, most often, was not written to explain the end of the world or reveal prophecy—though in some notable occasions it does just that. Rather, as Flannery O’Connor once said of the grotesque in fiction, apocalyptic literature offers a cartoonish exaggeration to shock the apathetic. Resisting common misreads, apocalyptic literature traditionally serves to describe a spiritual condition or stasis. The title of Bolaño’s novel represents a stasis that has little to do with the year 2666 but everything to do with the century that was dawning at the time of his untimely death. By blotting out the new millennium’s ever-changing numbers (2008, 2027, 2912…) with the placeholder 666, Bolaño hinted at a horrific—and, yes, apocalyptic—continuum descending upon us. One that we are growing accustomed to and, eventually, will fail to notice.

Humanity is entering its prolonged denouement. Will we make it to the year 3000? With the constant news of daily violence and ecological catastrophe, that sometimes seems hard to imagine—certainly this was the case for Bolaño, who cited the 20th century as a possible explanation for 2666’s deconstructed narrative terrain. The unprecedented horrors of World War I and World War II are where we come from, Bolaño suggests, and the tortured earth of Santa Teresa embodies our not-too-distant future: we are asleep at the wheel, coddled in luxury, indifferent and distracted, and we are largely blind to the many ways in which our world, every day, breaks just a little more.

Even the most dedicated readers, wading through the ceaseless violence of “The Part About the Crimes” section of 2666, will grow tired of the descriptions. The horrific rape and murder begin to blur as our brains, struggling to cope, become desensitized. Bolaño intended this. He lulls the reader into blood-spattered apathy. Then, in perhaps the greatest example of his authorial sleight-of-hand, Bolaño describes the investigating police trading chauvinistic jokes while ending their shifts. Immediately, we realize our own apathy. If the police investigating these inhumane acts can make jokes about the victims—and this is what captures our attention as readers, not the continued violence—then what does it say about us? Sure, we find the jokes distasteful, but our own indifference is worse: in our need for comfort, we stopped caring about the murder victims. Bolaño has called us out—and, as long as such horrors exist in the world, each of us remains culpable by extension. In this way, Bolaño bludgeons us awake with a power few writers possess, and the murders become shocking once more.

Again and again, Bolaño grabs us by the scruff of the neck and pushes our heads into the abyss. For Bolaño, the year 2666 is the symbolic culmination of humanity’s neglect and violence, a state of being that has become our modus operandi. Even our best efforts cannot avert the evil bearing down on victims and the apathetic onlookers alike. For that, Bolaño suggests, is where it all starts: at the very spot where we stop paying attention and slip into deadened stasis.

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

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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

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

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.