Monday, April 27, 2009

Books: Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry

Though tragedy was in the process of becoming unreal and meaningless it seemed one was still permitted to remember the days when an individual life held some value and was not a mere misprint in a communiqué. 5

Generally, the books that take me a long time to read—the “difficult” books, which have paragraphs and pages I must read two or three times, whose prose isn’t limpid, so that the meaning doesn’t lie on the page, but must be extracted—are books that I cannot enjoy. Not so Under the Volcano, whose opening pages I read four times before progressing further, trying to penetrate the filmy scrim of Lowry’s astonishing but obfuscating prose.

This is a gorgeous book in which the difficulty serves the character, the plot, the theme, for in it, we walk with the Consul, a colonial Englishman and a drunk, through hot, dusty Mexican towns, searching sometimes for his wife Yvonne, sometimes for his next drink, be it whisky, tequila, or the hallucinogenic mescal. The towns are called by their pre-Columbian names (like Cuauhnahuac), and the country is accordingly ancient and inscrutable. There is a filthy woman in the corner of a dark cantina who holds her chicken against her chest, inside her shirt, and a little girl who plays with an armadillo in the sand. There is a dead Indian on the side of the road, his head bashed in, and a ragged vagrant on the bus who steals the corpse’s purse. Events are random, ugly, but slightly distant, without urgency, however oracular.

The Consul’s struggle, like the plot of the novel, is and isn’t tangible—alcohol has hung a haze. He seems to wonder less whether he can quit than whether he should; if he were to quit, it would be for his wife Yvonne, who has divorced him, left Mexico, but now come back. As readers, we can never quite touch her (or the Consul’s brother Hugh, with whom she seems to nurse another waning romance). Nor, it seems, can the Consul; we only know he longed for her because we read a letter he wrote (which Lowry discloses by placing it in the hand of another character, as a found object in a borrowed book). Mescal, in fact, is the truly desired lover; the Consul dreams more and more of El Farolito (the purposefully named “Lighthouse”), the cantina which guides his step to his last drink.

Under the Volcano seethes with that oppressed, colonial heat of Jealousy and Out of Africa, but roils with the further besotted despair that comes from drink alone. And yet, it doesn’t read at all as a cautionary tale. Instead, like Beckett, like Kafka, Lowry wonders why we’re here, and never quite figures it out. Not for love, that is certain.

No comments: