Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry
We begin in a point in time where the tragedy that befell Mr Geoffrey Firmin, former British Consul in Mexico, merely ripples through to the reader via the barside thoughts of Monsieur Jacques Laruelle. Laruelle seems to be caught in a moment of retrospective thought about Geoffrey, whose British-Indian upbringing crosses over with Laruelle’s teenage years in Leasowe, where both were in the company of the Taskersons family. It seems that the Frenchman is Firmin’s longest friend, and Laruelle reminisces shared summers with the public schoolboy. In the present, however, Jacques Laruelle is alone with his thoughts: the bar is sombre and the Frenchman is the sole, mute speaker of Firmin’s wake.
The memories are not so innocent, however, for ubiquitous to this story of Geoffrey is the presence of alcohol. Laruelle nurses tequila as he thinks about the English lads of his youth, whose walks involved the imbibement of copious pints and whose interactions with girls were ones that were, at best, jokes propped upon prankster behaviour. It is also suggested that Geoffrey is haunted by a horrific act that he had committed during his time in the British Navy. He may have ordered the furnace deaths of German submariners, and though he was acquitted, the moment resurfaces several times in the novel. However, these are fleeting and seem to be unspoken feelings that are overshadowed by the ex-Consul’s failed relationship with his former wife.
Geoffrey is an alcoholic whose inability to refrain from drinking is oftentimes paired with the belief that he can, in fact, withhold from it. Though he may at times struggle painfully with the desire to drink, at others he seems to be overtaken with self-confidence. During those scenes, I would even imagine him to carry himself not as a sober man, but as an energetic – perhaps overly so – man, a man whose confidence gives him a physical (but temporary, in the case of Firmin) swagger. Then, again, he drops. His elation becomes distress and bitterness. Geoffrey Firmin’s alcoholism had had severe effects on his marriage with Yvonne Griffaton, who comes back to Mexico after their separation and spends one last tragic day with him, all of which is recounted in this novel.
Towards the end of the day, the Day of the Dead of 1938, there may be hope at last for Geoffrey and Yvonne, who both hint at their despair, caused not only by their current state of separation, but also by the pain of the memories of their last goodbyes. They dream of an entirely different future in which they live together in a harmonious manner. Yet for their shared agony and shared desires, we then find Geoffrey agonising, alone, over the fateful night before Yvonne’s departure, where he had forgotten the place of their meeting and searched – drunkenly – for expectant Yvonne. He hadn’t been able to reach her. She left; likewise, he now waits at the bar, whilst Yvonne searches for him; likewise, yet again, they do not meet. This time they fall separately.
Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl lie in the backdrop of Mexico City. Their presence is there in the novel, not only as a backdrop but also as the foreground of the day. The two volcanoes appear in myth as star-crossed lovers whose deaths prevent them from ever being able to spend any time together. In ‘Under the Volcano’, Geoffrey Firmin casts his gaze at Popocatépetl often, asking himself if he would be able to climb; he also tells himself that yes, he can, and he sees himself in his imagination as a having conquered to the heights of the mountain. He says so, and at times he believes so. Just like Yvonne may believe, at times, in their peaceful Canadian house by the lake. Of course, he never will. The cursed future of the two Mexican figures awaits Geoffrey and Yvonne as well, fuelled by Geoffrey’s alcoholism (that would be a simplification: I think Geoffrey is not simply an alcoholic, and I think Geoffrey would say that he is certainly not an alcoholic – but why my choice of words? Geoffrey is an alcoholic and Geoffrey dies; Geoffrey’s tragedy may have begun at sea, but perhaps even before then – perhaps after).
Popocatépetl, Popocatépetl, Popocafépetl. There are two bars called Popocafépetl (perhaps even three) that are located not too far from each other. They are known for letting in those who are underaged, often hosting parties whose sole attendees are gangly school classmates, and the bars are also known for being cheap. At the peak of the summer season, the underground bar would be dark and packed with people. Somehow, despite the music and despite the state of our minds, it was possible – and easy – to make conversation with any passing stranger. It was more than possible. In fact, it was welcomed and expected. Conversations were not only meaningless, but also entirely founded on meaninglessness. In the moment, however, phrases were thrown around with absolute certainty: the drunken speaker would believe in his newfound mantra and toss it around the arena like a bull whose constructed behaviour, carefully set up yet entirely spontaneous and fantastically entertaining, was taken as his nature.
The lucidity of Geoffrey’s thoughts betrays his drunken stupor, for they release torrents of speech that teeter on the political and the philosophical, but are written in such a way that the reader wants to beg Geoffrey to shut his mouth. Sometimes I feel anger begin to bubble up inside me, hoping that I begin to curse or swear at the text before me – as if that would somehow change Firmin’s behaviour – and I admit that this latent anger persists throughout the novel. Why must he digress in such abrupt ways? Geoffrey Firmin constantly duels with the world around him. The poisonous toxins that he believes are so well hidden emerge at these moments, coils of anger, whittled thoughts that are twisted and knotted into half-speeches. However, his speech does not match his thoughts. It seems that he chooses at every turn and opportunity to seek out topics that only incense those around him and that are distant from the issues at hand.
At the beginning of the novel, Laruelle finds an unsent letter written by Geoffrey. It should have been a reply to the letters, as we find out throughout the rest of the noel, that Yvonne had sent.
“I will stop drinking, anything. I am dying without you. For Christ Jesus’ sake Yvonne come back to me, hear me, it is a cry, come back to me, Yvonne, if only for a day…”
I don’t think Geoffrey, despite his inner cries and is outward fits of speaking, is ever heard properly.