Under the Volcano sprang out of a short story Lowry wrote after seeing a man dying on the side of the road while traveling through Mexico via bus. Lowry and his wife were advised to not get off the bus and interfere, and they saw a pelado steal the man’s money. The story was expanded into a novel completed in 1940, but Lowry met with such rejection that it was revised again and again, only finally getting published in 1947.
Except for a brief framing chapter, the book takes place over the course of a single day. Geoffrey Firmin, aka the Consul, is a middle-aged alcoholic living in Quauhnahuac (Cuernavaca), Mexico. Months ago, he and his wife Yvonne separated. During the separation, Yvonne sent several increasingly desperate letters begging for a reconciliation (all unreceived by the Consul), and it is on this day that she returns to Cuernavaca to make one last attempt at saving their marriage. It is also on this day that the Consul’s 29-year-old half-brother Hugh has arrived in Cuernavaca from the U.S.A.
The book is a tragedy: each of the three protagonists is consumed with guilt: the Consul for becoming a drunken failure, Yvonne for cheating on her husband and leaving her marriage, and Hugh for not achieving enough in his youth. Fittingly, the book takes place on Mexico’s Day of the Dead. The Mexicans’ celebrations of death form a running counterpoint to the protagonists’ strained attempts to battle against their lives. The Mexicans revel in death, while the Counsul, Yvonne, and Hugh, mope through lives that are very much already over.
In developing the feel of the novel and the characters, Lowry uses many more cultural influences. The Spanish Civil War plays a large role. Even though at this point (1938) the war is all but lost, Hugh continually tortures himself by wrestling with the idea of taking a shipment of explosives overseas to aid the Republican forces. It’s a measure of his desperation that he’s willing to risk his life to make a fruitless gesture in a war that he already recognizes as being, for all intents, over. For all three characters, the Battle of the Ebro becomes an oft-repeated theme. That battle is generally recognized as the Republican’s last stand, a hopeless final attempt to beat back the inevitable victory of Fascism, and Lowry uses it to engender a sense of futility of his protagonists’ battle against guilt.
Then, of course, there’s the pelado, the “‘peeled ones,’ the stripped, but also those who did not have to be rich to prey on the really poor. . . . [Pelado] was perhaps one of those words that had actually been distilled out of conquest, suggesting, as it did, on the one hand thief, on the other exploiter.” Remember that Lowry saw a pelado rob an Indian in Mexico. It was the genesis of the book, and that event becomes the central incident of the book. When it happens, the Consul, Hugh, and Yvonne all sit silently. In excusing his cowardice, Hugh thinks “and the truth was, it was perhaps one of those occasions when nothing would have done any good.” It’s this fatalism that mars each’s life, and it’s this fatalism that prevents any of the three from taking action against the pelado. As it turns out, it’s that choice–or rather lack of choise–that seals each’s fate.
Under the Volcano has been compared to Ulysses, as throughout the novel Lowry shifts between each character’s stream-of-conscious with little warning. Lowry is a very innovative stylist, and he takes chances. Reader beware–Lowry makes you work for it. He also writes beautifully. This is how Hugh is introduced:
He began to button his shirt, which was open to the waist, revealing, above the two belts, the skin more black than brown with sun; he patted the bandolier below his lower belt, which slanted diagonally to the holster resting on his hipbone and attached to his right leg by a flat leather thong, patted the thong (he was secretly enormously proud of his whole outfit), then the breast poclet of his shirt, where he found a loose rolled cigarette he was lighting when Yvone said . . .”
It’s almost cinematic, how we follow Hugh’s hands from buttons to bandolier to thong to brest pocket. At each Lowry makes a stop and investigates around, revealing Hugh’s tan skin, his holster. He even takes a parenthetical sidetrip into Hugh’s head. All this in one hopping, melodic sentence.
Style was something very much on Lowry’s mind. In his own preface to the novel, he writes
To begin with, his very style may assume an embarrassing resemblance to that of the German writer Schopenhauer describes, who wished to express six things at the same time instead of discussing them one after the other. “In those long, rich parenthetical periods, like boxes enclosing boxes, and crammed more full than roast geese stuffed with apples, one’s memory above all is put to the task, when understanding and judgment should have been called upon to do their work.”
This is a perfect summation of Lowry’s style. His sentences run extremely long, and they often telescope inward, encompassing several strands of narration yet remaining somehow intelligable. Take this example:
The Counsul stumbled on without being seen, passing a booth where you could have your photograph taken with your sweetheart against a terrifying thunderous background, lurid and green, with a charging bull, and Popocatepetl in eruption, past, his face averted, the shabby little closed British Consulate, where the lion and the unicorn on the faded blue shield regarded him mournfully.
By way of mapping the above out: First the Counsul passes the photo booth. Upon doing so, Lowry takes the opportunity to bring us into the booth, where we see the background–the charging bull, the volcano. With little warning–all hinging on that one word “past”–Lowry brings us back out to the Consul, whose face is averted as he passes the British Consulate. Lowry than takes that opportunity to describe the lion and unicorn on the BC’s shield: mournful. This is how Lowry stacks boxes into boxes–beautifully. And this is one of his simpler sentences.
Few books excel on mutliple levels at once–overall structure, line-by-line style, theme, story, emotion. Under the Volcano is one of those books. No less a critic than William Gass ranks it as one of the greatest literary achievements of the 20th century. For readers willing to take on the challenge, it’s an immensely rewarding book that I recommend without reservation.
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