Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry is kind of an odd book. It starts out with a guy remembering one of his friends and how he died. Then we flash back to that day and focus on that friend, as well as the two people with him. The guy who starts the book makes some appearance later, but not much. That’s probably an odd way to open discussion of this book, but Under the Volcano is a strange book.
(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Walter Kirn.)
Geoffrey Firmin is ‘the Consul.’ Well, that’s what he’s called. He’s actually a drunk. He was a consul at one point, but still pretty much in name only even then. Consuls watch out for the business interests of their country. There wasn’t much of that in the small Mexico town Firmin was posted in, even before the UK severed ties with Mexico and pulled their people back. He was pretty much sent there to get him out of the way. When the UK pulled out, Firmin stayed.
We know from the very start of Under the Volcano that Firmin is going to die. We read to find out how, and in what manner his death occurs.
On this day, Firmin is drunk. He’s pinned between desperately wanting his former wife to return to him and wanting to be left alone to pretty much drink himself into oblivion. She comes back, wanting him to leave Mexico so they can form a life together again. However, he’s still pinned. He’s not going anywhere. His half brother is also there, making a bit of a love triangle.
But, most importantly, as I already mentioned, Firmin is drunk:
… The Consul, an inconceivable anguish of horripilating hangover thunderclapping about his skull, and accompanied by a protective screen of demons gnattering in his ears, became aware that in the horrid event of his being observed by his neighbours it could hardly be supposed he was just sauntering down his garden with some innocent horticultural object in view. Nor even that he was sauntering. The Consul, who had waked a moment or two ago on the porch and remembered everything immediately, was almost running. He was also lurching. In vain he tried to check himself, plunging his hands, with an extraordinary attempt at nonchalance, in which he hoped might appear more than a hint of consular majesty, deeper into the sweat-soaked pockets of his dress trousers. And now, rheumatisms discarded, he really was running… Might he not, then, be reasonably suspected of a more dramatic purpose, of having assumed, for instance, the impatient buskin of a William Blackstone leaving the Puritans to dwell among the Indians, or the desperate mien of his friend Wilson when he so magnificently abandoned the University Expedition to disappear, likewise in a pair of dress trousers, into the jungles of darkest Oceania, never to return? Not very reasonably. For one thing, if he continued much farther in this present direction towards the bottom of his garden any such visioned escape into the unknown must shortly be arrested by what was, for him, an unscalable wire fence. “Do not be so foolish as to imagine you have no object, however. We warned you, we told you so, but now that in spite of all our pleas you have got yourself into this deplorable—” He recognized the tone of one of his familiars, faint among the other voices as he crashed on through the metamorphoses of dying and reborn hallucinations, like a man who does not know he has been shot from behind. “—condition,” the voice went on severely, “you have to do something about it. Therefore we are leading you towards the accomplishment of this something.” “I’m not going to drink,” the Consul said, halting suddenly. “Or am I? Not mescal anyway.” “Of course not, the bottle’s just there, behind that bush. Pick it up.” “I can’t,” he objected—”That’s right, just take one drink, just the necessary, the therapeutic drink: perhaps two drinks.” “God,” the Consul said. “Ah. Good. God. Christ.” “Then you can say it doesn’t count.” “It doesn’t. It isn’t mescal.” “Of course not, it’s tequila. You might have another.” “Thanks, I will.” The Consul palsiedly readjusted the bottle to his lips. “Bliss. Jesus. Sanctuary… Horror,” he added. “—Stop. Put that bottle down, Geoffrey Firmin, what are you doing to yourself?” another voice said in his ear so loudly he turned round. On the path before him a little snake he had thought a twig was rustling off into the bushes and he watched it a moment through his dark glasses, fascinated. It was a real snake all right. Not that he was much bothered by anything so simple as snakes, he reflected with a degree of pride, gazing straight into the eyes of a dog. It was a pariah dog and disturbingly familiar. “Perro,” he repeated, as it still stood there—but had not this incident occurred, was it not now, as it were, occurring an hour or two ago, he thought in a flash. Strange. He dropped the bottle which was of white corrugated glass—Tequila Añejo de Jalisco, it said on the label—out of sight into the undergrowth, looking about him. All seemed normal again. Anyway, both snake and dog had gone. And the voices had ceased…
Firmin’s half brother hopes for things. His former wife hopes for things. Firmin has hopes of a kind, but they are disconnected from any actions he really performs in life. What is going to happen is going to happen. That’s just going to be it, tragic as it may be.
The prose in Under the Volcano is a little denser than is my preference, but I can’t fault the effects it pulls off. The images are vivid and the melancholy fatalism is beautifully stirring. Its structure is odd, but it works masterfully. Really, that’s all anybody needs to say.