Pulque, mescal y tequila
Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry 1947
When I was a teenager, my friend and I used to listen to Hubert-Félix Thiéfaine. A lot. As I’m not getting younger, this was pre-internet age and the well-cultured references included in his songs left us with a lot of questions. With no answers, most of the time, since you couldn’t google things. Asking your parents wasn’t safe because you didn’t really want them to listen to all the lyrics that guy wrote. Let’s say he provided me with the appropriate soundtrack for Naked Lunch when I read it and could teach Ms James kinky ideas about lavatories or had creative visions about how the Holy Spirit could hurt his balls with a motorcycle. I loved his album Eros Über Alles and the song Pulque, mescal y tequila is where I first heard of Malcolm Lowry. The song was stored somewhere in my memory and I had a kind of Proustian moment when I started reading Under the Volcano. It happened page 1 when Lowry mentions the Hotel Casino de la Selva and the song came back suddenly and stayed with me. At least I understand the lyrics now.
I haven’t finished Under the Volcano, I’m only around page 110 of a book that counts roughly 400 pages but I wanted to share my first impressions about it. Actually, I feel I’m under the volcano myself. I mean, under a flow of hot lava of words coming from a writer who uses the language in a different way. It’s hard to describe. It’s cinematographic, I feel I’m there.
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.
I’m reading it in English and it’s difficult but I’ve heard it’s difficult for English-speaking readers too. But still, I won’t read it in translation, his style is so unique that I don’t want the interference of a translator, as good as they may be. I enjoyed the English tainted with French or Spanish of the first dialogues.
I have trouble building coherent thoughts about what I’ve read so far. I’m stunned by the prose, the atmosphere. It’s haunting, inebriating, and powerful. I’m in the middle of sensations from every page: sounds, images, poetry.
I’m struggling to wrap my head around the relationships between the characters. I regret that I don’t know more about the politics in the 1930s and especially the Spanish Civil War. I’m thinking about Ulysses and I wonder why since I haven’t read the book. Perhaps it’s because everything happens in the same day. It brings back passages from Hiroshima, Mon amour by Marguerite Duras because of the dialogue about a place:
- “Remember Oaxaca?”
- “– Oaxaca? –“
- “– Oaxaca – “
And it’s stupid because Hiroshima, mon amour was written after Under the Volcano. Unless Duras was inspired by Lowry.
I find in there the strength of Jack London in The Road, the appetite for life from of Cannery Row. There’s also the wild currents of life and destruction we’ll find again in On the Road. Something of the colonial atmosphere you find in books or films set in France’s colonies in Africa. The booze, the strangeness of being in a country that isn’t yours, the alien traditions of the locals, the tension, the small circles. There’s something like this in The Roots of Heaven too. It reminds me of a film by Almodovar.
I guess this ramble doesn’t help you figuring out what the book is all about. I promise I’ll write a proper billet about it. With descriptions of the characters, an idea of the plot. But now, there’s no room for sensible organization of my thoughts, just feelings and impressions.
It’s going to take a long time to read it but I’m not giving up. And that Thiéfaine connection just added to my determination.