November 2, the Day of the Dead in Mexico, marked the 70th anniversary of the day on which Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece Under the Volcano begins.
In honor of that anniversary I began rereading it, but first I reread the letter that Lowry wrote to Jonathan Cape, his publisher, after hearing that Cape’s reader was recommending drastic cuts. In 32 pages of patient, ingenious, and sometimes hilarious explanation, Lowry laid out the structure, intentions, and symbolism of the book that he had labored over for almost a decade.
The book, Lowry explained, is built “as a wheel so that, when you get to the end, if you have read carefully, you should want to turn back to the beginning again.” The book is “so designed, counterdesigned and interwelded that it could be read an indefinite number of times and still not have yielded all its meanings or its drama or its poetry: and it is upon this fact that I base my hope in it.”
This is the simple truth: Under the Volcano is one of the few inexhaustible, endlessly rewarding novels of the 20th century.
In its most basic terms, Under the Volcano is the story of the last day in the life of the British consul appointed to the Mexican city of Quahnahuac, a man who (like Lowry himself) is both highly intelligent and an extreme alcoholic. (In What the Consul Drank , I attempt to determine just how much he consumed that day.) The Consul’s grip on reality is tenuous, but in his alcoholic delirium he receives powerful messages warning of the evil around him and his own mortality.
The Consul’s Spanish (like Lowry’s) is far from perfect, and problems of translation take on an important symbolic weight. In Chapter V, as Lowry explains in this letter, “the most important theme of the book” appears in the form of a sign leaning against the fence of a little public garden, accompanied by “a murderous machete” and “an oddly shaped fork, somehow nakedly impaling the mind.”
¿LE GUSTA ESTE JARDIN?
¿QUE ES SUYO?
¡EVITE QUE SUS HIJOS LO DESTRUYAN!
As Lowry explains in his letter, the Consul “slightly mistranslates” this sign as “You like this garden? Why is it yours? We evict those who destroy!” The garden, he goes on, can be taken to be the Garden of Eden, or the world itself. “It also has all the cabalistic attributes of ‘garden.’”
In Chapter X, as the Consul is eating (and drinking) with his brother Hugh and his estranged wife Yvonne, a waiter named Cervantes arrives to take their order. “You like eggs, señora. Stepped-on eggs. Muy sabrosos. Divorced eggs? … Or spectral chicken of the house?”
A little later, the Consul becomes preoccupied with a tourist brochure about Tlaxcala, as he interprets it in his addled brain, and begins teasing the waiter with fragments from it.
“Cervantes,” the Consul interrupted, “you are Oaxaqueñan?”
“No, señor. I am Tlaxcalan, Tlaxcala.”
“You are,” said the Consul. “Well, hombre, and are there not stricken in years trees in Tlaxcala?”
“Sí, Sí, hombre. Stricken in years trees. Many trees.” …
“Sí … many lagoons.”
“And are there not many web-footed fowl in these lagoons?”
Like much of Under the Volcano, the scene is funny and horrible at the same time. By this point the Consul’s happiness and even survival depend on his clarity of mind and his understanding of what is going on around him — but alcohol has dulled his perceptions even while his over-clever mind entertains itself with irrelevancies.
Geoff Wisner is the author of A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa, which discusses books from every African country. He also blogs at www.geoffwisner.com.