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Geoffrey Firmin, a former British consul, has come to Quauhnahuac, Mexico. His debilitating malaise is drinking, an activity that has overshadowed his life. On the most fateful day of the consul's life—the Day of the Dead, 1938—his wife, Yvonne, arrives in Quauhnahuac, inspired by a vision of life together away from Mexico and the circumstances that have driven their relationship to the brink of collapse. She is determined to rescue Firmin and their failing marriage, but her mission is further complicated by the ...
Geoffrey Firmin, a former British consul, has come to Quauhnahuac, Mexico. His debilitating malaise is drinking, an activity that has overshadowed his life. On the most fateful day of the consul's life—the Day of the Dead, 1938—his wife, Yvonne, arrives in Quauhnahuac, inspired by a vision of life together away from Mexico and the circumstances that have driven their relationship to the brink of collapse. She is determined to rescue Firmin and their failing marriage, but her mission is further complicated by the presence of Hugh, the consul's half brother, and Jacques, a childhood friend. The events of this one significant day unfold against an unforgettable backdrop of a Mexico at once magical and diabolical.
Under the Volcano remains one of literature's most powerful and lyrical statements on the human condition, and a brilliant portrayal of one man's constant struggle against the elemental forces that threaten to destroy him.
Two mountain chains traverse the republic roughly from north to south, forming between them a number of valleys and plateaus. Overlooking one of these valleys, which is dominated by two volcanoes, lies, six thousand feet above sea level, the town of Quauhnahuac. It is situated well south of the Tropic of Cancer, to be exact on the nineteenth parallel, in about the same latitude as the Revillagigedo Islands to the west in the Pacific, or very much further west, the southernmost tip of Hawaii—and as the port of Tzucox to the east on the Atlantic seaboard of Yucatán near the border of British Honduras, or very much further east, the town of Juggernaut, in India, on the Bay of Bengal.
The walls of the town, which is built on a hill, are high, the streets and lanes tortuous and broken, the roads winding. A fine American-style highway leads in from the north but is lost in its narrow streets and comes out a goat track. Quauhnahuac possesses eighteen churches and fifty-seven cantinas. It also boasts a golf course and no less than four hundred swimming pools, public and private, filled with the water that ceaselessly pours down from the mountains, and many splendid hotels.
The Hotel Casino de la Selva stands on a slightly higher hill just outside the town, near the railway station. It is built far back from the main highway and surrounded by gardens and terraces which command a spacious view in every direction. Palatial, a certain air of desolate splendour pervades it. For it is no longer a Casino. You may not even dice for drinks in the bar. The ghosts of ruined gamblers haunt it. No one ever seems to swim in the magnificent Olympic pool. The springboards stand empty and mournful. Its jai-alai courts are grass-grown and deserted. Two tennis courts only are kept up in the season.
Towards sunset on the Day of the Dead in November, 1939, two men in white flannels sat on the main terrace of the Casino drinking anís. They had been playing tennis, followed by billiards, and their racquets, rainproofed, screwed in their presses—the doctor's triangular, the other's quadrangular—lay on the parapet before them. As the processions winding from the cemetery down the hillside behind the hotel came closer the plangent sounds of their chanting were borne to the two men; they turned to watch the mourners, a little later to be visible only as the melancholy lights of their candles, circling among the distant, trussed cornstalks. Dr. Arturo Díaz Vigil pushed the bottle of Anís del Mono over to M. Jacques Laruelle, who now was leaning forward intently.
Slightly to the right and below them, below the gigantic red evening, whose reflection bled away in the deserted swimming pools scattered everywhere like so many mirages, lay the peace and sweetness of the town. It seemed peaceful enough from where they were sitting. Only if one listened intently, as M. Laruelle was doing now, could one distinguish a remote confused sound—distinct yet somehow inseparable from the minute murmuring, the tintinnabulation of the mourners—as of singing, rising and falling, and a steady trampling—the bangs and cries of the fiesta that had been going on all day.
M. Laruelle poured himself another anís. He was drinking anís because it reminded him of absinthe. A deep flush had suffused his face, and his hand trembled slightly over the bottle, from whose label a florid demon brandished a pitchfork at him.
"—I meant to persuade him to go away and get dealcoholisé," Dr. Vigil was saying. He stumbled over the word in French and continued in English. "But I was so sick myself that day after the ball that I suffer, physical, really. That is very bad, for we doctors must comport ourselves like apostles. You remember, we played tennis that day too. Well, after I looked the Consul in his garden I sended a boy down to see if he would come for a few minutes and knock my door, I would appreciate it to him, if not, please write me a note, if drinking have not killed him already."
M. Laruelle smiled.
"But they have gone," the other went on, "and yes, I think to ask you too that day if you had looked him at his house."
"He was at my house when you telephoned, Arturo."
"Oh, I know, but we got so horrible drunkness that night before, so perfectamente borracho, that it seems to me, the Consul is as sick as I am." Dr. Vigil shook his head. "Sickness is not only in body, but in that part used to be call: soul. Poor your friend, he spend his money on earth in such continuous tragedies."
M. Laruelle finished his drink. He rose and went to the parapet; resting his hands one on each tennis racquet, he gazed down and around him: the abandoned jai-alai courts, their bastions covered with grass, the dead tennis courts, the fountain, quite near in the centre of the hotel avenue, where a cactus farmer had reined up his horse to drink. Two young Americans, a boy and a girl, had started a belated game of ping-pong on the verandah of the annex below. What had happened just a year ago to-day seemed already to belong in a different age. One would have thought the horrors of the present would have swallowed it up like a drop of water. It was not so. 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. He lit a cigarette. Far to his left, in the northeast, beyond the valley and the terraced foothills of the Sierra Madre Oriental, the two volcanoes, Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl, rose clear and magnificent into the sunset. Nearer, perhaps ten miles distant, and on a lower level than the main valley, he made out the village of Tomalín, nestling behind the jungle, from which rose a thin blue scarf of illegal smoke, someone burning wood for carbon. Before him, on the other side of the American highway, spread fields and groves, through which meandered a river, and the Alcapancingo road. The watchtower of a prison rose over a wood between the river and the road which lost itself further on where the purple hills of a Doré Paradise sloped away into the distance. Over in the town the lights of Quauhnahuac's one cinema, built on an incline and standing out sharply, suddenly came on, flickered off, came on again. "No se puede vivir sin amar," M. Laruelle said ... "As that estúpido inscribed on my house."
"Come, amigo, throw away your mind," Dr. Vigil said behind him.
"—But hombre, Yvonne came back! That's what I shall never understand. She came back to the man!" M. Laruelle returned to the table where he poured himself and drank a glass of Tehuacan mineral water. He said:
"Salud y pesetas."
"Y tiempo para gastarlas," his friend returned thoughtfully.
M. Laruelle watched the doctor leaning back in the steamer chair, yawning, the handsome, impossibly handsome, dark, im–perturbable Mexican face, the kind deep brown eyes, innocent too, like the eyes of those wistful beautiful Oaxaqueñan children one saw in Tehuantepec (that ideal spot where the women did the work while the men bathed in the river all day), the slender small hands and delicate wrists, upon the back of which it was almost a shock to see the sprinkling of coarse black hair. "I threw away my mind long ago, Arturo," he said in English, withdrawing his cigarette from his mouth with refined nervous fingers on which he was aware he wore too many rings. "What I find more—" M. Laruelle noted the cigarette was out and gave himself another anís.
"Con permiso." Dr. Vigil conjured a flaring lighter out of his pocket so swiftly it seemed it must have been already ignited there, that he had drawn a flame out of himself, the gesture and the igniting one movement; he held the light for M. Laruelle. "Did you never go to the church for the bereaved here," he asked suddenly, "where is the Virgin for those who have nobody with?"
M. Laruelle shook his head.
"Nobody go there. Only those who have nobody them with," the doctor said, slowly. He pocketed the lighter and looked at his watch, turning his wrist upwards with a neat flick. "Allons-nous-en," he added, "vámonos," and laughed yawningly with a series of nods that seemed to carry his body forward until his head was resting between his hands. Then he rose and joined M. Laruelle at the parapet, drawing deep breaths. "Ah, but this is the hour I love, with the sun coming down, when all the man began to sing and all the dogs to shark—"
M. Laruelle laughed. While they had been talking the sky had grown wild and stormy to the south; the mourners had left the slope of the hill. Sleepy vultures, high overhead, deployed downwind. "About eight-thirty then, I might go to the cine for an hour."
"Bueno. I will see you this night then, in the place where you know. Remember, I still do not believe you are leaving to–morrow." He held out his hand which M. Laruelle grasped firmly, loving him. "Try and come to-night, if not, please understand I am always interested in your health."
"Hasta la vista."
"Hasta la vista."
—Alone, standing beside the highway down which he had driven four years before on the last mile of that long, insane, beautiful journey from Los Angeles, M. Laruelle also found it hard to believe he was really going. Then the thought of tomorrow seemed well- nigh overwhelming. He had paused, undecided which way to walk home, as the little overloaded bus, Tomalín: Zócalo, jounced past him downhill toward the barranca before climbing into Quauhnahuac. He was loth to take that same direction to-night. He crossed the street, making for the station. Although he would not be travelling by train the sense of departure, of its imminence, came heavily about him again as, childishly avoiding the locked points, he picked his path over the narrow-gauge lines. Light from the setting sun glanced off the oiltanks on the grass embankment beyond. The platform slept. The tracks were vacant, the signals up. There was little to suggest any train ever arrived at this station, let alone left it:
Yet a little less than a year ago the place had been the scene of a parting he would never forget. He had not liked the Consul's half-brother at their first encounter when he'd come with Yvonne and the Consul himself to M. Laruelle's house in the Calle Nicaragua, any more, he felt now, than Hugh had liked him. Hugh's odd appearance—though such was the overwhelming effect of meeting Yvonne again, he did not obtain even the impression of oddity so strongly that he was able later in Parián immediately to recognize him—had merely seemed to caricature the Consul's amiable half-bitter description of him. So this was the child M. Laruelle vaguely remembered hearing about years before! In half an hour he'd dismissed him as an irresponsible bore, a professional indoor Marxman, vain and self-conscious really, but affecting a romantic extroverted air. While Hugh, who for various reasons had certainly not been "prepared" by the Consul to meet M. Laruelle, doubtless saw him as an even more precious type of bore, the elderly aesthete, a confirmedly promiscuous bachelor, with a rather unctuous possessive manner toward women. But three sleepless nights later an eternity had been lived through: grief and bewilderment at an unassimilable catastrophe had drawn them together. In the hours which followed his response to Hugh's telephone call from Parián M. Laruelle learned much about Hugh: his hopes, his fears, his self-deceptions, his despairs. When Hugh left, it was as if he had lost a son.
Careless of his tennis clothes, M. Laruelle climbed the embankment. Yet he was right, he told himself, as reaching the top he paused for breath, right, after the Consul had been "discovered" (though meantime the grotesquely pathetic situation had developed where there was not, on probably the first occasion when one had been so urgently needed, a British Consul in Quauhnahuac to appeal to), right in insisting Hugh should waive all conventional scruples and take every advantage of the curious reluctance of the "police" to hold him—their anxiety, it all but appeared, to be rid of him just when it seemed highly logical they should detain him as a witness, at least in one aspect of what now at a distance one could almost refer to as the "case"—and at the earliest possible moment join that ship providentially awaiting him at Vera Cruz. M. Laruelle looked back at the station; Hugh left a gap. In a sense he had decamped with the last of his illusions. For Hugh, at twenty-nine, still dreamed, even then, of changing the world (there was no other way of saying this) through his actions—just as Laruelle, at forty-two, had still then not quite given up hope of changing it through the great films he proposed somehow to make. But to-day these dreams seemed absurd and presumptuous. After all he had made great films as great films went in the past. And so far as he knew they had not changed the world in the slightest.—However he had acquired a certain identity with Hugh. Like Hugh he was going to Vera Cruz; and like Hugh too, he did not know if his ship would ever reach port ...
M. Laruelle's way led through half-cultivated fields bordered by narrow grass paths, trodden by cactus farmers coming home from work. It was thus far a favourite walk, though not taken since before the rains. The leaves of cacti attracted with their freshness; green trees shot by evening sunlight might have been weeping willows tossing in the gusty wind which had sprung up; a lake of yellow sunlight appeared in the distance below pretty hills like loaves. But there was something baleful now about the evening. Black clouds plunged up to the south. The sun poured molten glass on the fields. The volcanoes seemed terrifying in the wild sunset. M. Laruelle walked swiftly, in the good heavy tennis shoes he should have already packed, swinging his tennis racquet. A sense of fear had possessed him again, a sense of being, after all these years, and on his last day here, still a stranger. Four years, almost five, and he still felt like a wanderer on another planet. Not that that made it any the less hard to be leaving, even though he would soon, God willing, see Paris again. Ah well! He had few emotions about the war, save that it was bad. One side or the other would win. And in either case life would be hard. Though if the Allies lost it would be harder. And in either case one's own battle would go on.
How continually, how startlingly, the landscape changed! Now the fields were full of stones: there was a row of dead trees. An abandoned plough, silhouetted against the sky, raised its arms to heaven in mute supplication; another planet, he reflected again, a strange planet where, if you looked a little further, beyond the Tres Marías, you would find every sort of landscape at once, the Cotswolds, Windermere, New Hampshire, the meadows of the Eure-et-Loire, even the grey dunes of Cheshire, even the Sahara, a planet upon which, in the twinkling of an eye, you could change climates, and, if you cared to think so, in the crossing of a highway, three civilisations; but beautiful, there was no denying its beauty, fatal or cleansing as it happened to be, the beauty of the Earthly Paradise itself.
Yet in the Earthly Paradise, what had he done? He had made few friends. He had acquired a Mexican mistress with whom he quarrelled, and numerous beautiful Mayan idols he would be unable to take out of the country, and he had—
M. Laruelle wondered if it was going to rain: it sometimes, though rarely, did at this time of year, as last year for instance, it rained when it should not. And those were storm clouds in the south. He imagined he could smell the rain, and it ran in his head he would enjoy nothing better than to get wet, soaked through to the skin, to walk on and on through this wild country in his clinging white flannels getting wetter and wetter and wetter. He watched the clouds: dark swift horses surging up the sky. A black storm breaking out of its season! That was what love was like, he thought; love which came too late. Only no sane calm succeeded it, as when the evening fragrance or slow sunlight and warmth returned to the surprised land! M. Laruelle hastened his steps still further. And let such love strike you dumb, blind, mad, dead—your fate would not be altered by your simile. Tonnerre de dieu ... It slaked no thirst to say what love was like which came too late.
Excerpted from Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. Copyright © 1962 Margerie Bonner Lowry. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted February 2, 2007
This is a story of one day in the life of an alcoholic, written as a portrayal of his inner thought processes of going from one drink to the next. Overall I did not feel it was worth reading. There really isn't any plot and the ending seemed to be a crude way of just stopping the book arbitrarily.
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Posted July 20, 2008
The disintegration of The Consul in the course of one day in Mexico under the two volcanoes Popo and Izta. A rare and phenomenal look inside the mind of an alcoholic. -- (un-sugarcoated, beautiful, terrifying, funny, but debilitating none the less and every word rings true - a must read for any serious drinker)-- A brilliant visionary author, second to none. Lowry takes some getting used to, with his many looping sentences, and I often had to read through twice or thrice to understand, but as soon as I put it down, I wanted to read it again. After only the first 40 pages, it became my new favorite novel. Under the Volcano usually shows up in the top 10 list of Best Modern Novels...it isn't there for nothing!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 23, 2008
A most symbolic work that gets to the core of human hope and anguish. A multi-layered tale of Man confronted with the choice between terror or love as well as condemnation or redemption. Can be challanging if you plumb its' depths but they are there and well worth it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 20, 2001
Now this is a great book about life and the struggle of man. Unlike Eduardo Paz-Martinez, that hack who should stop trying and has no talent whatsoever, this writer knows how to write well and write about real men and the real Mexican border. This is a really good book on the beast called man, and the harsh land called Mexico.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 26, 2008
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Posted December 31, 2009
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Posted October 27, 2008
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Posted February 9, 2010
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