Dan Sandman

32:Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

In Books, Fiction on 07/08/2015 at 12:00 pm

Under the Volcano by Malcolm LowryUnfortunately for fans of literary fiction, Malcolm Lowry completed a mere two novels in his lifetime, preceding his premature death at the age of forty seven. According to the coroner’s verdict, Lowry died of ‘death by misadventure’, largely due to excessive alcohol consumption. His most influential work Under the Volcano (1947) is set in Mexico, where four central characters can be observed plummeting down towards tragedy. Written by an alcoholic about an alcoholic, it is noteworthy for its descriptions of mescalin and tequila binges, which complement Lowry’s heavily ornamented and referential prose style.

But beyond the reckless boozing, this unique novel depicts the volcanic Mexican landscape with great clarity. Indeed, the evocative way in which Lowry sets the scene is reminiscent of Joseph Conrad at the peak of his powers. From the perspective of the characters inside this tragic story, Mexico forms a suitably miserable backdrop. At one point, a dying man is left to bleed at the side of the road whilst someone snatches his purse (pg. 250). The general feeling of apathy expressed by the Mexican public towards this incident is typical of how Lowry chooses to portray his ‘Quauhnahuc’ as a symbolic hell. In its gloomy way, the overall tone is very disparaging towards Mexicans and, more’s to the point, humanity in general. This ugly element of the narrative is enhanced when the guitar player Hugh expresses his questionable feelings regarding antisemitism (chapter VI). Hugh’s disgusting attitudes are particular troubling when we consider that the novel is set just before World War Two.

Perhaps it the over consumption of alcohol which has led to the ugliness and cynicism present in this text. The four characters – Geoffrey (the Consul), M. Laruelle, Hugh and Yvonne – are privileged, highly educated and well traveled members of civilized society. And yet, made worse by their reliance on booze to drown their sorrows, they are unable to face the universal pressures of human existence. Their lives therefore swing from intense loneliness to extreme beauty; from powerful resentment to absolute love. Like the volcano that towers above them, these fragile human beings teeter always on the edge of eruption.

Brimful with poetry.


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