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Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

From Brick 91

Brick 91

¿Le Gusta Este Jardín
Que Es Suyo?
¡Evite Que Sus Hijos No Lo Destruyan!

It was so long ago but it holds up as one of those transfixing reads—snatch this book out of my hands at your own risk. I was travelling through the Yucatán on second-class buses with my college roommate Shelby. There was everything to be seen out the window, especially as my foreign travel had been so meagre and actual encounters with dramatically different landscapes so limited, but I could only look up and out when the reading and the ride began to jiggle my vision and roil my intestines. We had left the Ozarks, left Fayetteville—where the University of Arkansas is situated and where Shelby and I shared a small duplex—for a summer in New Orleans. But when we got to New Orleans we could not find an apartment; we did not begin to know where to look for a job. The heat hammered us though we had each bought a spaghetti-strap sundress in Memphis. We were hanging out at a friend’s double-shotgun rental. Drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, reading poetry; talking a more or less impotent advocacy of radicalism. We were fluent only in drinking and smoking. Someone there was wearing a ball cap with Garp printed on it, the first extraneous product to promote a book I had encountered. Someone else mentioned he was going to the Yucatán the next morning. His name was Joe, and I seem to remember he wound up becoming a prominent tenor in Paris. In an understated pitch delivered in dulcet tones, he made the Mexican peninsula sound paradisical. A couple of days later my friend and I were headed for the Yucatán too. We couldn’t have had four hundred dollars between us, including airfare. Mérida was just as withering as New Orleans, but everything was in a different language. The trip from the airport to the centro was an eyeful. Poincianas and jacarandas, frangipani and yellow oleander. Houses with unfinished second floors jutting rebar in every direction. A hen pecking at my bag while I clung to the overhead bar, alongside a suckling baby swathed in the mother’s rebozo. Ribby meat dangling from hooks in open-air stands, retread tire shops, panaderías in the path of clouds of bus exhaust, kids kicking a soccer ball in the dust. Mérida was a low-storeyed town, earthquake country. A dense grid of uniform buildings that made it difficult to orient yourself except by the zocalo. There were interior gardens and birds in aviaries, fresh-squeezed juices, iguanas on rope leashes, handmade cotton hammocks, ceiling fans and louvred windows; extravagant courtesies and saturated colours to which I was unaccustomed, noises that seemed festive even when they were just bleating car horns. Mérida was a base, but when you set out to travel, a night barely passes before the urge to see what’s in the next pueblo propels the morning.

A pair of jeans, a sundress, a couple of tees, and nylon tube backpacks. I was armed with the necessary book. I don’t remember who first put the book on my list or how it came into my possession, but when I pulled it out of my pack on the first leg of the journey, Shelby groaned, having left her own in NOLA. She had broken with the first absolute of travel—you have to bring your own read. Never mind that I owed her—for starters, my pissy blue point Siamese had run off her handsome, peace-loving, six-toed cat—I coldly obstructed her reading over my shoulder and was easily triggered if she made the teensiest effort to ease mi libro over to her seat at the first sign of a light siesta. But by the time we had swerved, grounded, screeched, and convulsed our way through the mountains to San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Shelby was flagrantly sick. Her underwear had to be disposed of in the bus stop at Villahermosa. When we rumbled into the old Mayan city in the valley of the highlands, we found a grungy place that grudgingly tolerated unchaperoned gringas and young stoner vagabonds. A dull bulb hung from a sketchy cord over our thinly blanketed cots. The great amenity was a common stucco steam room, the only place to get warm that didn’t involve a vertical trek to a cantina. Shelby had the shivers and sweats really bad, and I finally showed her a morsel of mercy. I tore the book apart up to the dog-eared page of my reading. She was grateful, though what she really needed was a doctor. We walked into the first of the lit doorways on the street marked by a hand-done sign of a giant syringe. Once out, there was always a good sopa de pollo y ajo to be found. Always a bracing shot of cheap tequila. And now she had her share of a book. She was no mewler.

In those days I dreaded coming to the end of a mighty book. It was not so much the story, I just resisted being ejected from the experience. Furthermore, endings usually convinced me the whole apparatus was a setup. Later, I would come to read the last pages first to get that done with because I could not stand the tension, even if I had a canny inkling as to where the tale was going. But I finally came to the end of my Mexican travel book, passed the remainder over to Shelby, and she polished it off. Then we could relive it. The first thing she said was something about Yvonne being trampled by the dead Indio’s horse. *#%¡What are you talking about*#%! ¿How could I have missed that? Two and a half pages of menacing prose committed to Yvonne’s demise. I was furious. I must have looked up to gaze on the clouds rising below us and the campesino tending his maíz on a precipice. My friend had to locate the passage for me to confirm.

The Consul’s end you could smell coming long before he staggered into the Farolito. He was beyond saving himself, but when it came to pass, his dingy death, it couldn’t have reached higher heights or more fathomless depths of prose than when he felt “his life slivering out of him like liver, ebbing into the tenderness of the grass. Where was everybody? Or had there been no one. Then a face shone out of the gloom, a mask of compassion. It was the old fiddler, stooping over him. ‘Compañero—’ he began. Then he had vanished.” Which is just a scintilla of the rapture, the “complete glutted oblivion,” and the lonely degradation the novelist works into the terminal pages of el ultimo requiem for “those who have nobody with.” It is a long, long mescal-fuelled descent, the Day of the Dead in Under the Volcano, in the ominous shadow of El Popo, “plumed with emerald snow and drenched with brilliance” before a dead dog is thrown down the ravine after our “great and shattered” hero.

Do you like this garden
which is yours?
See that your children do not
destroy it

C.D. Wright (1949–2016) published sixteen collections of poetry and prose and served on the faculty at Brown University for decades. Her books include One With Others [a little book of her days], Rising, Falling, Hovering, and One Big Self (a collaboration with photographer Deborah Luster). Casting Deep Shade comes out with Copper Canyon Press in 2019.

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