The following is an extract from my as yet unpublished travel memoir, Ambassador of Nowhere. It concerns a trip to Mexico in 2014.
Caminar en esta zona no le recomiendo: es muy peligroso, said the security guard on the graveyard shift at my hotel in Cuernavaca, as I set out for a midnight stroll. ‘I don’t recommend walking in this area: it’s very dangerous’. I am staying at the Hacienda Cortés, a sugar mill built in 1530 by the conquistador, Hernán Cortés, for the son he had with his mistress, La Malinche, and worked by the family – or rather, their slaves – until it fell into disuse and was, much later, reinvented as a hotel. Guests are housed in small bungalows, each with its own tiny patio garden.
Earlier there was a storm, rocking the trees outside my room, which shed leaves like thin leathery hands and a quantity of other solid matter, along with a downpour of such intensity that I put off heading downtown, settling instead for the more local comforts of the hotel restaurant.
On the latest leg of my Mexican journey, I have just spent a day and a night in Mexico City, returning to the capital from Veracruz to attend a tertulia, a literary discussion group organised by the poet Fabio Morábito and friends. Afterwards I visited the barrio of Mixcoac, passing Octavio Paz’s family home en route, before returning to the more familiar territory of Condesa, and dinner at Luigi’s with Pedro Serrano and Carlos López Beltrán.
Back on the bus to Cuernavaca, the perennial Mexican bus, we pass through the sprawling shanty outskirts of southern Mexico City and into the mist again. Daily travel awakens in the traveller a sense of permanent dislocation, which is of course what the word means; displacement, an absence of locus. I am drawn to Cuernavaca, not only for its alleged splendour, lying as it does, under the volcano – “plumed with emerald snow and drenched with brilliance” – and the setting for Malcolm Lowry’s magnificent, terrible novel of that name, but also because my friend, Peter, who died destitute on the streets of Athens thirty years ago, came here sometime in the 1970s in search of Lowry’s ghost, and to drink mescal.
The night before, I broke the journey from Veracruz by stopping off at the town of Puebla, where I had made vague plans to meet up with yet another poet. There, I witnessed an incident, insignificant in itself, which I could not shake off. As I was walking into town, an Indian woman – ‘Indian’ is not considered to be an offensive term in Mexico and Central America – utterly bedraggled, with long grey hair and dressed in rags, came running past me, chasing after a huge SUV, crying out, at volume and with some distress ‘Don Roberto, Don Roberto . . .’ She carried on at pace up the street calling out Don Robé . . . Don Robé . . . for an entire block, and I followed her until I could see the vehicle turning at the next set of lights. When I got to the junction, she had stopped, and was resting, hands on knees, her crevassed face fallen into a state of resigned torment. She seemed elderly, although poverty and stress and struggle probably added twenty years to her features. I asked her if she needed help, but she seemed not to see me. I asked again, are you all right? And she stared at me as if I were mad, as though the question – estás bien? – were so idiotic as to defy rational consideration. I cannot imagine what her story was, or what she felt she was owed by the object of her chase, the cruel, oblivious Don Roberto. Quite possibly, of course, she was delusional, and there was no ‘Don Roberto’ in the car that had driven away, only a random stranger, but the quality of her distress convinced me that some terrible injustice had been committed against her. The scenario was timeless, and her gasping of the honorific ‘Don’, as her spindly legs carried her in desperate pursuit somehow epitomized the gulf between want and privilege; his status and her subjugation. The image stayed with me as I rode the bus to Mexico City the following day, the massive form of Popocatépetl to my left caught fuzzily on my phone camera above the misty woodlands and broad meadows that gather around its base. The journey impressed on me the extraordinary diversity of the landscape; that within a few hours one can pass from the coast, across prairie, forest and the high sierra. The only constant is the truly terrible music being played full volume wherever you go.
I plan to read Under the Volcano in its proper setting, and I take my copy along with me to the dining room. Within an hour or so I am just as astonished – more so perhaps, because better able to acknowledge the scope of the achievement – by Lowry’s novel as I was the first time I read it, half a lifetime ago. I digest Michael Schmidt’s Introduction along with the chicken consommé, intrigued to discover that Schmidt grew up in the same streets that backdrop the story; and so I proceed to consume the first few chapters with my steak, nopales and avocado, washed down with a bottle of Chilean red, and I linger over dessert (fig tartlet and pistachio ice cream), then order coffee and a tequila. I have not eaten so much in months, and certainly not since my arrival in Mexico. By eleven, I have been reading for over three hours, having forgotten enough of the story for it to read like new.
In Lowry’s novel, we accompany the ex-Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, as he lives out the last day of his life – which also happens to be the Day of the Dead, November 2nd, 1938 – in Cuernavaca, which Lowry calls by its Nahuatl name, Quauhnahuac. Much of the novel is recounted in a stream of consciousness, describing the lurid visions of a man in the throes of alcoholic meltdown. The novel also narrates the events of the day in the external or material world, in which Geoffrey’s estranged wife, Yvonne, returns to him after a separation of several months. Others present – for at least a part of the Consul’s final day – are his half-brother Hugh, who has been intimately involved with Yvonne in the past, and is still attracted to her, the film director Laruelle (another of Yvonne’s ex-lovers), and a cast of minor characters who inhabit the actual town, as well as the infernal multitudes that populate Geoffrey Firmin’s increasingly haunted imagination as the story unfolds with steadily measured suspense – but with all the digressions of a mind in the throes of disintegration – towards its hallucinatory and terrifying climax. This duality, between the inner and the outer, between the spectacular writhing of Firmin’s tortured soul and the quotidian events that need to be negotiated if he is to have a function as a human being – an ‘animal with ideas’ – lies at the heart of the novel, and reflects a fundamental paradox in the life of the Consul, a tortuous, self-loathing self-portrait of his creator. ‘Function’ – not at all incidentally – is a word that is uttered with sinister insistence in the closing chapter by the police officer who will kill the Consul.
The novel has attained mythic stature for readers, its fans including numerous writers from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, as well as from the English-speaking world, since its publication in 1947, after a strenuous, decade-long gestation.
Despite filmic potential – as a classical tragedy set against a dramatic landscape – it has only made it to the cinema once, in one of John Huston’s last ventures, and although Albert Finney’s Consul is superb, the film fails to convince in its portrayal of the other lead characters, Yvonne and Hugh, perhaps for the very reasons that the novel fails: they are really not that interesting. Essentially, Lowry was only concerned with character: the Consul, Geoffrey Firmin.
Foiled in my plans for a late night constitutional by the watchman’s warning – I tend to err on the side of caution these days – I return to my room. I am a long-term insomniac, and although optimistically convinced that at some point I will ‘catch up’ on all the sleep I have missed, that rarely happens, and I suspect I will remain in a state of lack for the rest of my days. Instead, I read, drifting in and out of slumber on occasion, a rhythm that especially suits the reading of this book.
At one point, quite early in the novel, the Consul insists, with typical grandiosity, that he is involved in a ‘great battle’, although he is, at that moment, doing nothing more than discussing whether to go on a visit to the bullfight in a neighbouring town or to stay at home with Yvonne. That notion of ‘the battle’, the sense of carrying a massive burden, of suffering this great responsibility to ‘come through’ in a struggle for survival, is drawn upon by the Consul when he resists the opportunity of going home, of calling off the trip, of simply spending some time with poor, exhausted Yvonne. Laruelle, his friend, reminds him: ‘you’ve got her back . . . you’ve got this chance”, to which the Consul replies, with magnificent self-importance, “You are interfering with my great battle” – and again, rhetorically: “You deny the greatness of my battle?” At the end of this passage the Consul continues speaking, taking Laruelle’s part in the conversation as well as his own: “even the suffering you do is largely unnecessary. Actually spurious.” But Laruelle isn’t there anymore. The Consul is talking to himself. For much of the book, if he is not talking to himself, he is addressing one of his inner demons or ‘familiars’, which amounts to the same thing.
One of the best examples of the Consul’s mind at battle with his familiars appears in Chapter Five, when he leaves Yvonne sleeping inside the house – or so he thinks (in fact Hugh has taken her riding) – in order to venture into the garden and retrieve a bottle of tequila he has kept hidden in the shrubbery. The chapter picks up on some of the novel’s main themes or ‘useful debris’, in which we find references to film and to cabalistic philosophy, varieties or brands of alcohol, the local geography, horses, flora and fauna, and we meet with dogs, which, in different forms, appear fifty-eight times over the course of the novel. The passage is worth citing in its entirety:
‘We warned you, we told you so, but now that in spite of all our pleas you have got yourself into this deplorable – .’ He recognised 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, take just 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 around. 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 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 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 . . .’
The familiar speaks to the Consul amid the din of 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.’ This arresting image presents the Consul as a man awash in a sea of phantasmagoria, the idea of ‘being shot from behind’ heavily foreshadowing the novel’s ending. Moreover, the brisk discussion being carried out by the Consul with his familiar carries a toxic, comic – or toxically comical – element that will persist over several such scenes. Its insistent, hectoring tone both incites the Consul to drink (‘Pick it up’; ‘You might have another’) and at the same time to back off (‘horror’ . . . ‘Stop. Put that bottle down’), an argument that the Consul has with himself throughout the first half of the book, after which he is too drunk to care. The snake, cunningly disguised as a twig, appears as a symbol both of the Fall, and of man beguiled by woman. Not, of course, that the Consul was concerned ‘by anything so simple’ as snakes – and here again we are confronted by the man’s grandiosity; he, who has stared into the very mouth of hell (the book has close parallels with Dante’s Inferno), is not concerned by a mere serpent, and on this account he feels pride, before ‘gazing straight into the eyes of a dog,’ which recalls the ancient Mexican belief that these animals acted as guides to the underworld. The dog is ‘disturbingly familiar’, which is not surprising as we met this very dog a few pages earlier, when the Consul and Yvonne entered their property on Calle Nicaragua, and its ‘familiarity’ has an explicit double meaning also. The Consul’s reaction to it, too, is identical to the previous encounter, and he utters the word ‘perro’ (dog) as much in recognition as in description, thus iterating one of the central themes of the novel, that of perpetual repetition, or endless return.
I am not sure if the proliferation of animals in Under the Volcano has been given full critical treatment but it strikes me as one of the central features of the novel. One writer who has paid attention is Javier Marías. There is a section in his Written Lives in which Marías lists some of the disasters of Lowry’s own life as recounted by Lowry himself. The strange thing is that the three stories he tells all concern animals: (i) a pair of elephants allegedly spotted by Lowry and his friend John Sommerfield hanging out on a street corner in Fitzrovia in the 1930s; (ii) the occasion when Lowry, convinced that a passing horse had snorted at him ‘derisively’, punched the poor creature so hard (just below the ear) that it ‘quivered and sank to its knees’; and (iii) the time that Lowry, stroking a pet rabbit with his ‘small, clumsy hands’ accidentally broke the animal’s neck, only to be consumed by remorse, and ‘wandered the streets of London for two days carrying the corpse . . . consumed by self-loathing’.
In Under the Volcano, it is when the Consul is at his most lubricated and fluent that the animals begin to pile up in abundance, as in Chapter Five. If this is the case, it reflects that the mind – especially, perhaps, the alcoholic mind – thinks in terms of animals because animals provide a natural metaphoric filter. Animals, as Claude Lévi-Strauss insisted, are good to think with.
The references to animals are almost too many to name, but it is interesting to reflect on the peculiar term the Consul employs to refer to animals: ‘people without ideas’ (in contrast to his term for humans as ‘animals with ideas’). ‘Earlier it had been the insects; now these were closing in on him again, these animals, these people without ideas.’ They include a pariah dog with three legs ‘with the appearance of having lately been skinned’ (clearly a xolo), as well as, in Chapter Five alone, ponies, a snake, a tiger, scorpions, leafcutter ants, Quincey, his neighbour’s, cat; (pink) elephants, a lizard, humming-birds, butterflies, ants with petals or scarlet bloom, an unnamed insect (caught by Quincey’s cat); a snake in the grass and ‘a procession of thought like little elderly animals’; various birds, a bull, three black vultures, a caterpillar, a large cricket (with a face like a cat); a scorpion and some ‘murdered mosquitoes’. Indeed, ‘the whole insect world had somehow moved nearer and now was closing, rushing in upon him.’ Throughout the book flutter a host of birds, in their capacity as omens: in Chapter One alone we encounter ‘sleepy vultures’; ‘small, black, ugly birds, something like monstrous insects’; ‘a frantic hen’; ‘fowl roosting in apple trees’, and another vulture for good measure. In the book as a whole, I counted 153 references to mammals, insects and birds, and no doubt missed a few.
Lowry’s own ‘great battle’ with alcohol has been well documented, and not least through critical analysis of his masterpiece. He was never able to replicate the success of his singular, most powerful novel, and the reason is clear: he was too drunk, too much of the time. One of the best studies of Lowry and his writing is by the American writer and rock musician, David Ryan. In his intimate, exacting essay, Ryan says that Lowry, like most addicts, never developed a healthy self-identity, remaining wrapped in a state of infantile narcissism. Drawing on Lacanian theory, he claims that Lowry’s behaviour as an adult, his mammoth drinking binges and voluntary disappearances suggested an inability to distinguish between himself and the world around him, resulting in chaos with every misconceived utterance and histrionic gesture. That would certainly be true of his Consul, Geoffrey Firmin. And the ‘mirror’ theme is supported by a couple of instances recorded by those who knew Lowry.
One of Lowry’s biographers, Douglas Day, provides an anecdote from an old friend of the author, James Stern, who ‘recalled how fascinated he [Lowry] was with mirrors’, and recounts one episode at a party when Lowry disappeared, and Stern found him in the bathroom, in front of the mirror, snorting blood from his nose, which he caught in his hands and ‘thrust up to the ceiling , so that the whole place was red and white’, all the while staring at himself in the mirror and laughing. Lowry’s French translator, Clarisse Francillon, remembered his ‘habit of slyly watching for audience reaction whenever he was behaving outrageously’.
Among the many photographs of the writer posing, glass or bottle in hand, one shows him holding a mirror, reflecting his own image as he is being photographed; and this inevitably leads to the question: why do so many of the photos of Lowry – including those on the dust jackets of books about him – show the writer shirtless, dressed in bathing shorts, staring at the camera in a manner at once glazed and pompous, trying to make an impression with his meagre moustache and his chest pushed out like a bantam cock, as in the often-reproduced photo of Lowry at Burrard Inlet? Why so many photos of a half-naked Lowry? And when we get past the bared torso and the chest hair and the focus on the face – the one on the back cover of the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Under the Volcano – there is something both arrogant and vapid and fearful in those cold, clear eyes. The gaze is, we might surmise, intended to be piercing and riveting, but our attention is distracted by the sparse filaments of the faint moustache, the suggestion of vulnerability in the chin and the plump cheeks, a vaguely satyric pointedness to the ears; in fact what the portrait suggests more than anything else is that the sitter knows that he is meant to be there, but is unfortunately elsewhere, unobtainable, or more likely nowhere, waiting for this to be over with so he can go get another gin. More gin, buckets-full if at all possible, rivers-full, oceans-full of gin. This fantasy, which I am attributing to Lowry, originates in the Consul’s delirious outburst in Under the Volcano, when he attempts to recall an earlier life in Granada, Spain:
How many bottles since then? In how many bottles had he hidden himself, since then alone? Suddenly he saw them, the bottles of aguardiente, of anís, of jerez, of Highland Queen, the glasses, a babel of glasses – towering, like the smoke from the train that day – built to the sky, then falling, the glasses toppling and crashing, falling downhill . . . bottles of Calvados dropped and broken, or bursting into smithereens, tossed into garbage heaps, flung into the sea, the Mediterranean, the Caspian, the Caribbean . . . the bottles, the bottles, the beautiful bottles of tequila, and the gourds, gourds, gourds, the millions of gourds of beautiful mescal . . . How indeed could he hope to find himself to begin again when, somewhere, perhaps, in one of those lost or broken bottles, in one of those glasses, lay, for ever, the solitary clue to his identity?
Oh, that beautiful tequila and beautiful mescal! The simplicity of the descriptor reminds me of Hemingway’s choice of adjectives when writing to his friend Archie MacLeish in June 1957. Having been restricted by his doctor to a single glass of wine per day with his evening meal, he looks forward, with euphoric anticipation, to ‘a nice good lovely glass of Marques de Riscal’. This is an impossible utterance in the mouth of anyone except a crazed devotee, but as expressed by a writer who avowed a parsimonious approach to adjectives, the collocation of ‘nice’, ‘good’ and ‘lovely’ must be regarded with deep suspicion.
Malcolm Lowry’s grotesque diminution, his descent into the wretched, querulous, occasionally violent individual who choked to death on his own vomit in a rented house in Hove, England – a place epitomising parochial English decorum – represents a pathetic shadow death compared to the Consul’s fictional passing, flung down a Mexican ravine after his drunken debacle in the El Faro bar, followed by a dead dog that someone throws after him.
It always seemed to me that what literature and alcohol had in common was that they both allowed, momentarily, the ability to watch the world from a place of enhanced perception, or even to provide the illusion that you were really engaging with the stuff of life at a heightened level. Lowry summarises this clairvoyant state perfectly in Under the Volcano, when the Consul attempts to explain to his wife, Yvonne, why he is the way he is:
‘But if you look at that sunlight there, ah, then perhaps you’ll get the answer, see, look at the way it falls through the window: what beauty can compare to that of a cantina in the early morning? . . . for not even the gates of heaven, opening wide to receive me, could fill me with such celestial complicated and hopeless joy as the iron screen that rolls up with a crash, as the unpadlocked jostling jalousies which admit those whose souls tremble with the drinks they carry unsteadily to their lips. All mystery, all hope, all disappointment, yes, all disaster, is here, beyond those swinging doors.’
And a little further on: ‘how, unless you drink as I do, can you hope to understand the beauty of an old woman from Tarasco who plays dominoes at seven o’clock in the morning?’
I am tempted to compare this passage with Ronnie Duncan’s account of a visit to Crete with the Scottish poet W.S. Graham, in which Graham expresses an idea that would be familiar to Lowry’s Consul. Duncan is trying to get Graham to come out for a walk, to visit a museum, rather than continuing to drinking himself into oblivion – as he has done every day of the trip thus far – on the balcony of his hotel room:
So I held on like a terrier and eventually he gestured around the balcony – at the sea, mountains, beach and the tumble of houses on either side – and said that his task was to turn all these into words. ‘It is all’, he said, ‘better than I could ever have hoped’ – reminding me that he’d said this on arrival. And then it came to me that there was really nothing else he wanted or needed: this one experience of a Cretan setting, supplemented by visits to some all-Cretan tavernas, was all he could encompass or wished to encompass.
Lowry and his early morning cantinas, just as Graham and his Cretan tavernas; both of them are relaying an idea that promotes a kind of epiphany – what alcoholics are reputed to call ‘a moment of clarity.’ Compare ‘not even the gates of heaven, opening wide to receive me, could fill me with such celestial complicated and hopeless joy’ with ‘all he [Graham] could encompass or wished to encompass.’ And again, consider this eulogy to Lowry, written by his close friend Earle Birney, and cited in Schmidt’s Introduction: ‘. . . his whole life was a slow drowning in great lonely seas of alcohol and guilt. It was all one sea, and all his own. He sank in it a thousand times and struggled back up to reveal the creatures that swam around him under his glowing reefs and in his black abysses.’ Both Lowry and Graham shared the conviction that alcohol might open the gates of perception. How extraordinary that so much can be invested in an alcohol-enhanced vision of this kind, in which you are – or else believe you are – seeing more sharply, engaging more profoundly, empathising more absolutely, feeling more deeply; in other words, it might be said, replicating the aims of great literature.
How well I recognise this joyous, delusional state. During the most intense periods of my own drinking career this was all I wished for: to watch it all, to bathe in it, to sink into the sun-dappled splendour of the world. Perhaps – eventually – to turn it into words. I started serious early morning drinking while living in Hania, Crete, in my early twenties. It had always been taboo, I guess – recalling the story from my schooldays of a boy whose mother slept with a bottle of Scotch at her bedside – but once I started round-the-clock drinking, the chips were in; even I understood what it signified. And for my friend Peter, who lived in a tin shack next door, but who had once lived in Cuernavaca, intoxicated absorption in the beauty of the moment was his creative mission; but long ago he had lost the impetus that originally drove him – to turn it into paintings – and now the drinking was simply an everyday necessity, and he had stopped painting, working instead as a comedic or parodic waiter at the once notorious To Diporto fish restaurant in Odos Skridlov, the street of leather, until he was too dissolute even for that place, whereupon I took over the job. How pervasive is this terrible myth among the artists I grew up amongst, the ones I read and admired, the ones whose pictures I watched being made in the Slade School of Art when I was an undergraduate in London and where I spent more of my social time than among my fellow-students at the LSE; how prevalent this delusion that drink and drugs would somehow help us experience life more ‘deeply’. Those rakimornings with Peter, when the morning sun flooded the ramshackle square in the Splanziaquarter, where we lived, with its pots of red geraniums and the sheets hanging out over the railings of the brothel next door, the sounds of the town waking, the glorious sense of detachment too – to be a part of it and yet apart from it – these are the things I felt in regard to both my Cretan and, much later, my Mexican sojourns, until a final, catastrophic visit to Guadalajara put an end to this bright and beguiling fiction . . .
I am so comfortable in my whitewashed room that I don’t want to sleep, and I read almost until dawn, completing the first half of the book, before drifting into fitful slumber. I wake at nine, utterly distressed and worn out, the fan above my head whirring insistently with a regular click at each revolution. Outside there is absurdly loud birdsong, and the sun is struggling to break through thick rainclouds. I drink a coffee, smoke a cigarette, and order a taxi into town, where I have arranged to meet up with the poet Pura López Cólome, Seamus Heaney’s Spanish translator, who will be my guide to Cuernavaca for the day, and we will visit Cortés’ palace to see the Diego Rivera murals, and walk the streets that furnish Lowry’s novel. But already I am less concerned with the reality of Cuernavaca than I am with the one conjured by Lowry in his parallel city of Quauhnahuac. The actual place has been spoiled for me by its fictional double.
First published in PN Review 255, Sept-Oct 2020