UNDER THE VOLCANO BY MALCOLM LOWRY

Was it an achievement to wake up in a dive in El Paso and see the bartender [Carlos?] pulling up the shutters to let in urine-yellow light, which tumbled through the window and fell on the floor, relieving it of its uniform blue-black colour and revealing its true horrifying state? He rather thought it might be. Or perhaps the achievement was to wake up at all. Una cerveza, Señor? Carlos had taken his place behind the bar. [P] yawned, or grimaced. ‘Ah, what? A beer? Sí. Why not, eh?’ Sí? ‘Yes. It’s…’ He looked at his watch. ‘It’s…’ His watch had stopped. ‘Say, what time is it?’ Que? ‘Ah, no Ingles? Never mind. Yes, si, un cerv…no, una tequila, por favor.’ Carlos produced a bottle of tequila. Pequeño? ‘No. Grande.’ Carlos poured a large shot. [P] got up from the sofa on which he had slept and joined Carlos at the bar, lowering himself onto a stool with exaggerated care and precision, as though he were disarming a bomb. ‘Cheers!’ he smiled, and drained his glass. ‘Last night…’ he started, but trailed off, for the bartender’s face had suddenly taken on a vibrant, fiery red colour. ‘Here, you’re looking rather red, Carlos. Your skin, I mean. Your head, Carlos, I hate to tell you, is on fire.’ Carlos stood impassive, despite the unmistakable flames rising from his head and hands and arms; indeed, he was so impassive that [P] wondered if it was, in fact, his own eyes that were on fire instead. He was about to give voice to this alternative theory, when the bartender disappeared, or perhaps ducked down to rummage under the bar, before reappearing, sans flames, with a book in his hand. Silently, he placed in front of [P] a worn Penguin paperback, the cover of which featured a horrible laughing skull. ‘Ah, oh, this is for me, is it? Under the Volcano. Gracias. A favourite of mine, I think. Another tequilas, por favor. Grande. It’s rather appropriate, you know – the book, I mean – Cheers! – what with us being in this bar here and it – the book – being about a man who likes a drink – too much, I guess you’d say – a man who, if we’re being honest, Carlos, is an alcoholic. Geoffrey Firmin.’ ¿Tienes un problema con la bebida? [P] could not with any certainty say whether this question had come from Carlos or from somewhere else, the vulture perhaps, for there was a vulture now, sitting at the end of the bar. ‘I regularly come across incredible, inspiring stories about people who have an immense desire to survive, or succeed, or make the most of their time on earth; these are the kind of people who no matter how tough life gets are prepared to stare it down and bring it to heel. I admire these people; I want to make that clear, you know.’ He couldn’t, either, say whether he was actually talking to the vulture or Carlos himself. ‘Yet for every one of that sort, for every fighter, there is another who has meekly fallen by the wayside, and is incapable, or unwilling, to pick themselves up. Like Geoffrey Firmin, I mean.’ The vulture stared at him, blankly, with eyes like well-polished snooker balls. ‘Some people fail rather badly at life, you know. Vida es dura. When I was younger, only when I was younger, mind you, there was a period, following a break up, when I lost myself in London, when I quit my job, took up smoking, drink, and drugs and generally gave the impression of being unlikely to make it through the next twelve months. Now that I have pulled through – I have pulled through, you know – I feel a strange sort of affection for those times, and that me, as though that version of myself is my naughty, errant, unruly son.’ El libro, Señor. ‘Yes, of course.’ [P] heaved a sigh and raised his glass almost in supplication. Grande. ‘Excelente.’ I’ve seen it written numerous times, he thought or spoke, he could no longer tell the difference, that the opening chapter is difficult or hard-going – which is not always the same thing – or simply slow and uninvolving. The general idea is that the book takes some time to warm up, and that the first 50 or so pages may put readers off. I find this more than a little surprising – sorprendente, you know – for I consider the first chapter to be not only the novel’s high-point – which is not to say the rest is poor – but one of the finest opening chapters ever published. Está babeando Señor. ‘Under the Volcano begins with Jacques and Dr. Vigil talking about Ex-British Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, who, we find out, is dead. It has, in fact, been one year to the day since his death.’ Carlos wiped down the bar. Una grande, por favor. ‘Rather than spoiling the rest of the book, or sucking the tension out of the story to follow, this way of approaching things actually increases the tension, draws you in, you know. To know about Firmin’s unhappy demise in advance means that the next 300 pages are imbued with a kind of hopelessness or terrible inevitability.’¿Esto es el buitre, Señor? ‘Moreover, you are impelled to read on, because you want to find out what exactly happened to this apparently tragic figure, why, when it seemed as though he had got what he wanted with the return of his ex-wife, he still could not endure.’ The atmosphere is one of nostalgia, of looking back with tenderness and regret and confusion; it’s extraordinarily powerful stuff, like this tequila, amigo. There is also something eerie about it; Jacques is, as he wanders around the Mexican town where he and Geoffrey and Yvonne lived, chasing a ghost…he sees Firmin everywhere, in almost everything; he hears him in cantinas, and actually ends up with a letter he wrote that…I was reminded of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, you know. As with that book there is a sense that Jacques is in hell, where strange apparitions – like the drunk man on horseback – and unsettling noises – coming, as I recall, from the mourners – and weird creatures – those birds that look like long insects, remember? – and devilish imagery abound. Jacques’ Mexico is, like a hangover, like hell, a kind of labyrinth, Carlos; there is a sense of walking and not getting anywhere….of going round in circles…and the weather is extreme…or unpredictable… lightning, you know. Por favor. Despierta, Senor! O let him sleep, Carlos. ‘What follows is a day in the life of Geoffrey Firmin. The last day, you know. Geoffrey is…’ Grande? ‘He’s, yes, monumental, you know. Like Ahab, or Lear. Unforgettable; supersized. He is, however, often self-pitying. How do you say, autocompasión? He’s a drunk though, of course. Muy borracho. He’s an extraordinary creation, absolutamente believable….lying to himself and lying to others…hiding tequila – yes, si, grande, por favor – in the garden…swinging abruptly between delusion and clear-sightedness….’ [P] stopped, for he noticed that one of the photographs behind the bar was actually of himself, and appeared to be moving and speaking, albeit silently. ‘Firmin pushes Yvonne, his ex-wife, who has returned, away,’ he continued, looking down, imploringly, at his glass of tequila, ‘pushes her away although he had prayed for her return; because alcoholics, people in general, you know, are proud and stubborn, are, I think, certainly in Geoffrey’s case, often unable to do what is best for themselves. Firmin is hurting himself, punishing himself, out of a kind of guilt, perhaps. You could say, I do say, that Under the Volcano is the most complete, most annihilating, most honest novel ever written about addiction. Hell surrounds the Consul too, by the way; those pariah dogs that follow him? The demons he converses with? We speak metaphorically of demons, you know, as in he had his demons, sí? but these are real demons, or real visions anyway. Life is hell, alcoholism or addiction is hell, I guess is the point; Lowry emphasises this by dropping his characters into what appears to be a genuine hell.’ Sweat showed on [P]’s brow, beads as big as golf balls, as though he had been playing a sport more aerobic than golf. ‘The world, Carlos, the world of Under the Volcano, by which I mean the 1930’s, of course, but our world too, amigo, is seemingly bent of destruction, is perhaps coming to an end, what with the war, Hitler’s war, a world war around the corner, and other wars too, already in progress, civil war in Spain, for example. The world, Carlos, is fucked, just as Geoffrey is fucked; the two mirror each other. That was intentional, of course.’ [P]’s head shuddered and rattled, his stomach leaped and dropped, as though he was undergoing complicated and painful dental surgery while riding a rollercoaster. Estás bien, amigo? Si, es nada. She is weak, the ex-wife; she comes back, after all. No tough love, Carlos; she is almost an enabler. Does she return out of a sense of guilt, as he – the Consul – destroys due to his? Si. A relationship-in-crisis novel of the highest order. Are you married, Carlos? Fumbling, awkward, wanting to say something nice or important or something that will bring a reconciliation, but being unable to. Striving towards each other, but never touching. And Hugh? He is muy interesante. A dilettante: a failed songwriter, seaman, journalist; a would-be hero. What links all three of these people – Hugh, Geoffrey, Yvonne – is a feeling of disappointment, or disillusionment, an awareness of not having got out of life what they wanted or expected. ‘A drink, Carlos, for Christ’s sake. Tequila, por favor!’ The bartender filled [P]’s glass and left the bottle. For the first time he was aware that the bar, apart from Carlos and the vulture, and the vulture, if truth be told, was asleep, was empty. El negocio es malo, Señor. A thin voice through a black cloud. And then: ‘The style, amigo, is possibly most impressive of all. Stream of consciousness, they call it, don’t they? Fishing from Joyce’s stream, usually. Lowry too, I’d say, was handy with a rod, but he did something new, something stunning with what he dredged up, especially in relation to Geoff, because he nails it, the feeling, the mind-set, of being muy borracho, so that you too feel intoxicated while you read…the sudden shifts of perspective and mood…the queasiness…the confusion of not always being sure of who is speaking, or whether the person speaking actually exists or is a hallucination…Geoff falling over in the middle of the road, his train of thought unbroken, so that it – the revelation, also in thought – is sudden and shocking, as though you yourself have fallen. A polluted stream; a diseased consciousness. There’s nothing else like it in literature, amigo.’ [P] felt tears come smarting to his eyes.‘Yes, some of the sentences are disgraceful, some even Faulkner would have rewritten; and, si, it is occasionally overwrought and unsubtle – the rock broken in two is a bit too in your face, you know – but to pick faults, to flaw-find, is a kind of ingratitude, like complaining that your wife has put on her best underwear for you, but forgotten to remove the tag.’ Memories assailed [P], awful memories suddenly leaped at him, like a gang of masked men in a dark alleyway. Go to the doctor’s, Greg had said, just don’t tell him everything. Or was that Carlos speaking? On a bus at 3a.m., travelling back to some girl’s place; both of you weeping heavily; she in sympathy; you…?. ‘Cinematic,’ he continued, in order to drive these unwelcome memories away, ‘it is the most cinematic novel I’ve ever come across, amigo. You see it, rather than read it. When you’re not inside someone’s head it feels as though Lowry is directing you – look here, look there, follow me down this road, around that corner.’ Estás cansado, Señor. Yes, Carlos, si. Una…the bar came up to meet his face, in a non-too-friendly fashion…’…is funny too,‘ he found himself saying, perhaps, ‘muy muy divertido. So many laugh-out-loud lines, like when it is said of the Consul that No one could tell when he was drunk. True he might lie down in the street, if need be, like a gentleman. This, maybe more than anything else, proves what a great writer Lowry was, that he was able to draw humour out of what is such an intense, unhappy subject; because life is funny, you know. Horrible too, obviously, but always humorous, absurd.’¿lloras? [P] could hear a sharp, loud buzzing, that, after a few moments, he realised was the sound of his own body shaking. Symbolism, he tried to say, is rife, on every page…the dying indian, the man in the devil mask, the bull in the arena….and the volcanos…two, like Geoff and Yvonne, but permanent, unlike them; explosive, destructive….’ For the first time he noticed the small copper-coloured scorpion at the bottom of the tequila bottle, encased in liquid amber. Is it dead, he asked himself, or really, really drunk? Muy borracho. Poor thing. He remembered once, at eighteen, drinking a pint of tequila, and nearly dying. He woke up almost twenty-four hours later, still drunk, in a room he didn’t recognise. ‘A masterpiece!’ he shouted, then fell off the bar stool; and the scorpion, through an amber haze, surveyed the scene: is he dead, it asked itself, or really, really drunk? The vulture, awake now, laughed cruelly. ja ja ja ja ja ja.

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