>Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry

>I meant to read it years ago, but didn’t. This year I took it with me to Mexico to read while I attended Under the Volcano with Grace Paley. It has taken me awhile to finish.

It takes some time to get moving, and it takes some effort to follow Lowry’s lyricism and the beer/tequila/mescal fogged thinking of Geoffrey Firmin, the screwed up protagonist of the novel. The action of the book is on the Day of the Dead in Cuernavaca, called Quauhnahuac in the novel, a city which I have now visited twice. The main characters see the Diego Rivera murals in the Cortez Palace. I’ve seen those murals–they’re amazing. Although the little I’ve read about the novel does not use the word “tragedy,” that is what it seems to me to be. Firmin is struggling against his destiny and fails. He can’t dig his way out of the hole he has dug for himself because he doesn’t think he can, and in the end he sinks back down.

But the language is really the point. Chapter 3 of the book begins with the most amazing passage:

“The tragedy, proclaimed, as they made their way up the crescent of the drive, no less by the gaping potholes in it than by the tall exotic plants, livid and crepuscular through his dark glasses, perishing on every hand of unnecessary thirst, staggering, it almost appeared, against one another, yet struggling like dying voluptuaries in a vision to maintain some final attitude of potency, or of a collective desolate fecundity, the Consul thought distantly, seemed to be reviewed and interpreted by a person walking at his side suffering for him and saying: ‘Regard: see how strange, how sad, familiar things may be. Touch this tree, once your friend: alas, that that which you have known in the blood should ever seem so strange! Look up at that niche in the wall over there on the house where Christ is still, suffering, who would help you if you asked him: you cannot ask him. Consider the agony of the roses. See, on the lawn Concepta’s coffee beans, you used to say they were Maria’s, drying in the sun. Do you know their sweet aroma any more? Regard: the plantains with their queer familiar blooms, once emplematic of life, now of an evil phallic death. You do not know how to love these things any longer. All your love is the cantinas now: the feeble survival of a love of life now turned to poison, which only is not wholly poison, and poison has become your daily food, when in the tavern–‘”

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