Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry’s Antipodal Odyssey of Despair

Most of Malcolm Lowry’s dense, depressing novel Under the Volcano takes place over the course of November 2nd, 1938, the Mexican Day of the Dead. Like a reticent, dour Virgil, Lowry guides the reader through the day’s tragic arc, floating between the minds of his novel’s three protagonists: Geoffrey Firmin, his half-brother Hugh, and Geoffrey’s estranged wife Yvonne. Geoffrey is British Consul to Mexico — ex-Consul, really, as British-Mexican relations sour against the backdrop of Spanish fascism and the rise of nationalism in Mexico — but he is almost always referred to as “the Consul,” a blackly ironic title. See, the Consul bears little authority aside from an extreme expertise on how to stay drunk (or “drunkly sober un-drunk”) 24/7. He’s ambassador to bar stools, a manager of mescal and little else (certainly not his own life; certainly not diplomatic affairs). The Consul is a wreck, an alcoholic to put Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s (and even Bukowski’s) alter-egos to shame.

After a first chapter that seems to derail all but the most patient readers, the narrative conflict arrives when Yvonne returns to Quauhnahuac, Mexico, a year after leaving (and divorcing) the Consul. She arrives to find the Consul (“Geoffrey,” as he’s called when the free indirect style inhabits her mind) drinking whiskey in a hotel bar in order to sober up (yep). It’s not immediately clear why Yvonne has returned to the Consul, but it seems that she hopes to save him from drowning in a drunken downward spiral. As the pair walks to the Consul’s house, they pass numerous advertisements for a boxing match; a child’s funeral proceeds down the avenue. These motifs of fighting, death, and futility permeate the novel.

During the walk we learn that Yvonne is not the only one concerned about the Consul’s health; his (much) younger brother Hugh has come to stay with him in the hopes of sobering him up. (Hugh employs a revolting and unsuccessful “strychnine cure”). That Hugh has also returned doubly complicates the plot. Much of Under the Volcano remains implicit, unnamed, hinted at, and this seems especially true of the implication that Yvonne cheated on the Consul with Hugh in the recent past (this implication may have been stated conclusively at some point in the novel, but I’ve only read the book once, which is perhaps like not having read it at all). What’s certainly clear is that Yvonne cheated on the Consul with a French filmmaker, Jacques Laruelle, a man whom the Consul, through sheer bizarre coincidence (but of course it isn’t sheer bizarre coincidence), spent a childhood summer with, an experience which bonded them as brothers in an Edenic holiday that eventually (inevitably) soured.

Despite her infidelities, Yvonne is generally present (I choose the verb “present” over “presented as” to highlight Lowry’s impeccable Modernist style) as a sympathetic character. Still, it is hard not to identify with the Consul (with “Geoffrey,” I suppose, if we are going to be familiar), the dark soul of this novel, and his complicated, painful feelings for Yvonne form the core of Volcano’s tragedy. He longs for her, pines for a complete life with her, yet resents her, cannot forgive her, hates her. For what? For leaving him. For betraying him. But perhaps foremost, he despises her inability to understand his alcoholism (he is particularly upset when she refuses to share a morning libation with him when they meet for the first time in a year). I’ll quote a passage at length now, one that showcases Lowry’s free indirect style, and one that reveals the strange indignities of the Consul’s sense of his own alcoholism. For context, dear reader, you must only know that Yvonne has suggested that she and the Consul might make long-term plans when he is sober “in a day or two”—

The Consul sat perfectly still staring at the floor while the enormity of the insult passed into his soul. As if, as if, he were not sober now! Yet there was some elusive subtlety in the impeachment that still escaped him. For he was not sober. No, he was not, not at this very moment he wasn’t! But what had that to do with a minute before, or half an hour ago? And what right had Yvonne to assume it, assume either that he was not sober now, or that, far worse, in a day or two he would be sober? And even if he were not sober now, by what fabulous stages, comparable indeed only to the paths and spheres of the Holy Cabbala itself, had he reached this stage again, touched briefly once before this morning, this stage at which alone he could, as she put it, “cope,” this precarious precious stage, so arduous to maintain, of being drunk in which alone he was sober! What right had she, when he had sat suffering the tortures of the damned and the madhouse on her behalf for fully twenty-five minutes on end without having a decent drink, even to hint that he was anything but, to her eyes, sober? Ah, a woman could not know the perils, the complications, yes, the importance of a drunkard’s life! From what conceivable standpoint of rectitude did she imagine she could judge what was anterior to her arrival? And she knew nothing whatever of what all too recently he had gone through, his fall in the Calle Nicaragua, his aplomb, coolness, even bravery there—the Burke’s Irish whiskey! What a world! And the trouble was she had now spoiled the moment.

The “fall in the Calle Nicaragua” the Consul references is quite literally a drunkard’s blackout (followed by the aforementioned fortifying whiskey, courtesy of a tourist), but it — falling — is perhaps the dominant motif in a novel crammed with motifs. In allegorical terms, if we want to ruin a good book (I don’t recommend this, of course), Volcano is pure Faust-stuff: end of innocence, fall of man, intractability of the human condition, ethical peril, moral inertia. While the Consul’s fall dominates the novel, Lowry brings this decline into dramatic relief in a late, climactic episode when his (anti-)heroic trio encounter a dying (dead?) man on the side of the road. Hugh tries to help, but the Darwinian venality of Mexican commonplace law makes his attempt impotent. Yvonne and the Consul are basically paralyzed.

Hugh’s attempt to save the man is a desperate call to action, an endeavor to perform some good in a world dominated by war and fascism. Hugh’s character fascinates. We learn of his past in one of the novel’s most intriguing episodes, a mini-bildungsroman that finds young Hugh working in the merchant marine as a calculated ploy to lend romance to his persona — he longs to prevail as a songwriter. He returns to find that no one cares about — has even heard — his guitar compositions; his publicity stunt fails. Although Hugh is only twenty-nine, he already seems himself as a failure, a fallen hero; he obsesses over the Battle of Ebro, daydreaming of helming a ship laden with hidden arms that he will deliver to the Loyalists who oppose the Fascists. Hugh’s greatest pain — and perhaps (only perhaps) Lowry’s greatest cruelty — is the awareness that the idealism of romantic heroism is intrinsically bound to a kind of selfish egoism. Hugh, perhaps with the visceral signal of his half-brother as a kind of radical prescience, can already see his own fall; his parts in Volcano are in a sense a constant meditation on falling. Hugh tries to save the dying man on the road, the cold double of his brother, whom he also tries to save — and yet it is all to little avail.

In Lowry’s world, in the volcano-world, there is only expulsion from the Eden. Lowry spells out this theme near the middle of his novel in a strange episode. The Consul wanders into his neighbor’s garden and reads a sign —

¿LE GUSTA ESTE JARDÍN?
¿QUE ES SUYO?
¡EVITE QUE SUS HIJOS LO DESTRUYAN!

The Consul stared back at the black words on the sign without moving. You like this garden? Why is it yours? We evict those who destroy! Simple words, simple and terrible words, words which one took to the very bottom of one’s being, words which, perhaps a final judgement on one, were nevertheless unproductive of any emotion whatsoever, unless a kind of colourless cold, a white agony, an agony chill as that iced mescal drunk in the Hotel Canada on the morning of Yvonne’s departure.

Significantly, either the sign is posted with improper punctuation, or (and?) the Consul’s translation is wrong — in either case a meaningful misreading occurs. We later receive the “proper” version of the sign: “¿Le gusta este jardín, que es suyo? ¡Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan! – “Do you like this garden that is yours? See to it that your children do not destroy it!”  The Consul’s first reading is a corruption, a cruel misreading that questions humanity’s right to happiness, and, tellingly, he connects the sign to the end of his relationship with Yvonne. The second version of the sign, while still foreboding, perhaps signals a kernel of hope in Lowry’s bleak work — the idea that a garden might be preserved, might be tended to; that children might be raised who do not kill, cheat, steal, rape, enslave, or otherwise prey on each other. Still, Lowry refuses to imagine what such a world might look like for us. Did I mention that Volcano is really, really sad?

For all its bleak, bitter bile, Volcano contains moments of sheer, raw beauty, especially in its metaphysical evocations of nature, which always twist back to Lowry’s great themes of Eden, expulsion, and death. Lowry seems to pit human consciousness against the naked power of the natural world; it is no wonder then, against such a grand, stochastic backdrop, that his gardeners should fall. The narrative teems with symbolic animals — horses and dogs and snakes and eagles — yet Lowry always keeps in play the sense that his characters bring these symbolic identifications with them. The world is just the world until people walk in it, think in it, make other meanings for it.

In many ways, Under the Volcano is an antipodal response to Joyce’s Ulysses. Both novels stream through a number of consciousnesses over the course of one day; both novels invert and subvert mythical frameworks against diurnal concerns; both novels point to the ways that the smallest meannesses — and kindnesses — can color and affect our lives. And while there are many divergences (chiefest, I believe, the spirit of redemption in Ulysses that seems entirely absent from Volcano), the greatest similarity may be their difficulty. Simply put, Lowry, like Joyce, throws his readers into the deep end. The first chapter of the novel inhabits the mind of Jacques Laruelle and takes place exactly one year after the events of the rest of the novel. It is both overture and context for all that follows, and yet it is radically alienating; indeed, it only fully makes sense after one finishes the novel and goes back and reads it again, realizing it is the rightful coda, the sad epilogue of a sad story. Lowry leads with his conclusion, show us the fall-out up front, the splinters and shards of the narrative to come. Picking up these pieces is hardly easy and never joyful, but it is a rewarding experience. Very highly recommended.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept ran a version of this review in March of 2011; we run it again in honor of The Day of the Dead]

Katherine Anne Porter on F. Scott Fitzgerald (She Wasn’t a Fan)

Katherine Anne Porter in her Paris Review interview:

PORTER

I’ve never belonged to any group or huddle of any kind. You cannot be an artist and work collectively. Even the fact that I went to Mexico when everybody else was going to Europe—I went to Mexico because I felt I had business there. And there I found friends and ideas that were sympathetic to me. That was my entire milieu. I don’t think anyone even knew I was a writer. I didn’t show my work to anybody or talk about it, because—well, no one was particularly interested in that. It was a time of revolution, and I was running with almost pure revolutionaries!

INTERVIEWER

And you think that was a more wholesome environment for a writer than, say, the milieu of the expatriated artist in Europe at the same time?

PORTER

Well, I know it was good for me. I would have been completely smothered—completely disgusted and revolted—by the goings-on in Europe. Even now when I think of the twenties and the legend that has grown up about them, I think it was a horrible time: shallow and trivial and silly. The remarkable thing is that anybody survived in such an atmosphere—in a place where they could call F. Scott Fitzgerald a great writer!

INTERVIEWER

You don’t agree?

PORTER

Of course I don’t agree. I couldn’t read him then and I can’t read him now. There was just one passage in a book called Tender Is the Night—I read that and thought, “Now I will read this again,” because I couldn’t be sure. Not only didn’t I like his writing, but I didn’t like the people he wrote about. I thought they weren’t worth thinking about, and I still think so. It seems to me that your human beings have to have some kind of meaning. I just can’t be interested in those perfectly stupid meaningless lives. And I don’t like the same thing going on now—the way the artist simply will not face up to the final reckoning of things.

“The Threat” — Saki

“The Threat” by Saki

Sir Lulworth Quayne sat in the lounge of his favourite restaurant, the Gallus Bankiva, discussing the weaknesses of the world with his nephew, who had lately returned from a much-enlivened exile in the wilds of Mexico.  It was that blessed season of the year when the asparagus and the plover’s egg are abroad in the land, and the oyster has not yet withdrawn into it’s summer entrenchments, and Sir Lulworth and his nephew were in that enlightened after-dinner mood when politics are seen in their right perspective, even the politics of Mexico.

“Most of the revolutions that take place in this country nowadays,” said Sir Lulworth, “are the product of moments of legislative panic.  Take, for instance, one of the most dramatic reforms that has been carried through Parliament in the lifetime of this generation.  It happened shortly after the coal strike, of unblessed memory.  To you, who have been plunged up to the neck in events of a more tangled and tumbled description, the things I am going to tell you of may seem of secondary interest, but after all we had to live in the midst of them.”

Sir Lulworth interrupted himself for a moment to say a few kind words to the liqueur brandy he had just tasted, and them resumed his narrative.

“Whether one sympathises with the agitation for female suffrage or not one has to admit that its promoters showed tireless energy and considerable enterprise in devising and putting into action new methods for accomplishing their ends.  As a rule they were a nuisance and a weariness to the flesh, but there were times when they verged on the picturesque.  There was the famous occasion when they enlivened and diversified the customary pageantry of the Royal progress to open Parliament by letting loose thousands of parrots, which had been carefully trained to scream ‘Votes for women,’ and which circled round his Majesty’s coach in a clamorous cloud of green, and grey and scarlet.  It was really rather a striking episode from the spectacular point of view; unfortunately, however, for its devisers, the secret of their intentions had not been well kept, and their opponents let loose at the same moment a rival swarm of parrots, which screeched ‘I don’t think’ and other hostile cries, thereby robbing the demonstration of the unanimity which alone could have made it politically impressive.  In the process of recapture the birds learned a quantity of additional language which unfitted them for further service in the Suffragette cause; some of the green ones were secured by ardent Home Rule propagandists and trained to disturb the serenity of Orange meetings by pessimistic reflections on Sir Edward Carson’s destination in the life to come.  In fact, the bird in politics is a factor that seems to have come to stay; quite recently, at a political gathering held in a dimly-lighted place of worship, the congregation gave a respectful hearing for nearly ten minutes to a jackdaw from Wapping, under the impression that they were listening to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was late in arriving.” Continue reading

Types of Fear (A Passage from Roberto Bolaño’s Novel 2666)

There are odder things than sacraphobia, said Elvira Campos, especially if you consider that we’re in Mexico and religion has always been a problem here. In fact, I’d say all Mexicans are essentially sacraphobes. Or take gephyrophobia, a classic fear. Eots of people suffer from it. What’s gephyrophobia? asked Juan de Dios Martinez. The fear of crossing bridges. That’s right, I knew someone once, well, it was a boy, really, who was afraid that when he crossed a bridge it would collapse, so he’d run across it, which was much more dangerous. A classic, said Elvira Campos. Another classic: claustrophobia. Fear of confined spaces. And another: agoraphobia. Fear of open spaces. I’ve heard of those, said Juan de Dios Martinez. And one more: necrophobia. Fear of the dead, said Juan de Dios Martinez, I’ve known people like that. It’s a handicap for a policeman. Then there’s hemophobia, fear of blood. That’s right, said Juan de Dios Martinez. And peccatophobia, fear of comitting sins. But there are other, rarer, fears. For instance, clinophobia. Do you know what that is? No idea, said Juan de Dios Martinez. Fear of beds. Can anyone really fear beds, or hate them? Actually, yes, there are people who do. But they can deal with the problem by sleeping on the floor and never going into a bedroom. And then there’s tricophobia, or fear of hair. That’s a little more complicated, isn’t it? Yes, very much so. There are cases of tricophobia that end in suicide. And there’s verbophobia, fear of words. Which must mean it’s best not to speak, said Juan de Dios Martinez. There’s more to it than that, because words are everywhere, even in silence, which is never complete silence, is it? And then we have vestiphobia, which is fear of clothes. It sounds strange but it’s much more widespread than you’d expect. And this one is relatively common: iatrophobia, or fear of doctors. Or gynophobia, which is fear of women, and naturally afflicts only men. Very widespread in Mexico, although it manifests itself in different ways. Isn’t that a slight exaggeration? Not a bit: almost all Mexican men are afraid of women. I don’t know what to say to that, said Juan de DiosMartinez. Then there are two fears that are really very romantic: ombrophobia and thalassophobia, or fear of rain and fear of the sea. And two others with a touch of the romantic: anthophobia, or fear of flowers, and dendrophobia, fear of trees. Some Mexican men may be gynophobes, said Juan de DiosMartinez, but not all of them, it can’t be that bad. What do you think optophobia is? asked the director. Opto, opto, something to do with the eyes, my God, fear of the eyes? Even worse: fear of opening the eyes. In a figurative sense, that’s an answer to what you just said about gynophobia. In a literal sense, it leads to violent attacks, loss of consciousness, visual and auditory hallucinations, and generally aggressive behavior. I know, though not personally, of course, of two cases in which the patient went so far as to mutilate himself. He put his eyes out? With his fingers, the nails, said the director. Good God, said Juan de Dios Martinez. Then we have pedophobia, of course, which is fear of children, and ballistophobia, fear of bullets. That’s my phobia, said Juan de Dios Martinez. Yes, I suppose it’s only common sense, said the director. And another phobia, this one on the rise: tropophobia, or the fear of making changes or moving. Which can be aggravated if it becomes agyrophobia, fear of streets or crossing the street. Not to forget chromophobia, which is fear of certain colors, or nyctophobia, fear of night, or ergophobia, fear of work. A common complaint is decidophobia, the fear of making decisions. And there’s a fear that’s just beginning to spread, which is anthrophobia, or fear of people. Some Indians suffer from a heightened form of astrophobia, which is fear of meteorological phenomena like thunder and lightning. But the worst phobias, in my opinion, are pantophobia, which is fear of everything, and phobophobia, fear of fear itself. If you had to suffer from one of the two, which would you choose? Phobophobia, said Juan de Dios Martinez. Think carefully, it has its drawbacks, said the director. Between being afraid of everything and being afraid of my own fear, I’d take the latter. Don’t forget I’m a policeman and if I was scared of everything I couldn’t work. But if you’re afraid of your own fears, you’re forced to live in constant contemplation of them, and if they materialize, what you have is a system that feeds on itself, a vicious cycle, said the director.

From “The Part About the Crimes,” 2666 by Roberto Bolaño.

 

“What’s Outside the Window?” (Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives Revisited)

Untitled (Desert Landscape) by Salvador Dali

Biblioklept has already published two reviews of Roberto Bolaño’s big novel The Savage Detectives.

In the first review, from 2008, I suggested that the book was technically impressive but ultimately “unmoving.” In the second review, from 2010, Dave Cianci argued that my first review “was unfair and premature.”

I tend to agree with Cianci’s criticism of my early review, although in my defense I struggled with a first reading of The Savage Detectives because I was ignorant of the history of Latin America, Central America, and Mexico, a history that provides much of the context for the Bolañoverse. I was like the auditor in The Savage Detectives who listened as Ulises Lima

reeled off a story that I had trouble following, a story of lost poets and lost magazines and works no one had ever heard of, in the middle of a landscape that might have been California or Arizona or some Mexican region bordering those states, a real or imaginary place, bleached by the sun and lost in the past, forgotten, or at least no longer of the slightest importance here . . .  A story from the edge of civilization . . .

The citation above more or less pins down some of the problems first time readers to Bolaño might have with The Savage Detectives. More so than the rest of his oeuvre, Detectives dwells on “lost poets and magazines and works no one had ever heard of.” These poets and writers are mixed in with famous poets (like Octavio Paz, who appears as a character in one segment), and parsing the various characters’ attitudes toward these writers can be a perplexing challenge, and at times a turn off.

And it’s not just the names of poets and writers that can addle a reader: Many of Bolaño’s narrators share an obsessive compulsion to name every avenue, street, or alley they walk on or past, details that become frankly boring over an extended period. It’s a novel of names and places: canonizing, map-making.

Why the map-making? Because this is a book about being lost. Its first section is titled “Mexicans Lost in Mexico.” Notice how many times the word “lost” crops up in the citation above. Indeed, The Savage Detectives is not only about what it means to be lost, but also about what it means to lose—one’s friends, one’s group, one’s country, one’s mind. It’s a book about exiles.

Maybe, dear reader, you’re looking for a bit of plot summary, a morsel at least—that is, maybe you haven’t read The Savage Detectives and you want to know if you should or shouldn’t. I suggest reading Cianci’s review in that case. In any case, I don’t suggest starting Bolaño with The Savage Detectives (although I’m sure plenty of folks might disagree with me here). A better starting place might be the short story collection Last Evenings on Earth. Or really just jump into the beast at the abyssal heart of the Bolañoverse, 2666.

I reread 2666 this summer and immediately knew I had to reread The Savage Detectives, knew I had to parse some of what I missed in my first “unfair and premature” reading. I ended up checking out Blackstone Audio’s recording of the book, featuring the voice talents of Eddie Lopez and Armando Duran.

The audio production is excellent: Lopez, surely a very young man, reads the narratives of Juan García Madero that bookend the central section, “The Savage Detectives,” which is read with a startling depth of range by Duran. Lopez’s García Madero comes across as the naïve pretender to cynicism, the would-be artist faking a life of romance. In Duran’s handling, the myriad characters in the middle of the novel come to life with humor and pathos. He animates the characters, showcasing the irony and pain and sadness and small moments of lunatic joy that erupt in the book. The Savage Detectives makes for a surprisingly excellent audiobook. (Quick note anticipating a query those familiar with the novel may have: The cryptic pictograms that show up late in the novel are included in the audiobook; they displayed on my iPod in tandem with their sections, and I imagine they would pop up on any player with a screen).

I enjoyed The Savage Detectives much, much more this second time. I still found parts of it boring (perhaps purposefully boring, but boring nonetheless), and the episodes I enjoyed most on the first reading (the duel, the cavern, the Liberian segment, the Israeli prison, the campers in Spain) were the ones I enjoyed the most on the second round. Better equipped for this reading, I appreciated the riches of Detectives, the way its fragments, intertextual, metatextual, reach out through the Bolañoverse to couple with other fragments, other texts.

My metaphors above are all wrong—the texts don’t reach or couple—the reader does this work, this reaching, this coupling, this detecting.

In my first reading, not up to playing detective, I surely blew through this passage near the end of the novel, a passage that ripples with strange significance for anyone puzzling over 2666:

And Cesárea said something about days to come, although the teacher imagined that if Cesárea had spent time on that senseless plan it was simply because she lived such a lonely life. But Cesárea spoke of times to come and the teacher, to change the subject, asked her what times she meant and when they would be. And Cesárea named a date, sometime around the year 2600. Two thousand six hundred and something. And then, when the teacher couldn’t help but laugh at such a random date, a smothered little laugh that could scarcely be heard, Cesárea laughed again, although this time the thunder of her laughter remained within the confines of her own room.

Here we have lost poet Cesárea Tinajero, object of the savage detectives’ quest, holed up in her room in Santa Teresa, the central setting for the murders of 2666, a map of a factory (a maquiladora, like the ones the murdered women work at in 2666?) pinned to her wall; here we have Cesárea Tinajero, who keeps “a switchblade with a horn handle and the word Caborca engraved on the blade” by her side, believing she is “under threat of death.” Cesárea Tinajero is prophet to the horrors at the core of 2666.

2666’s Benno von Archimboldi twins Cesárea Tinajero. Just as a quartet of savage detectives search for Tinajero, so to a quartet of literary critics seek out the lost Prussian writer. (Archimboldi even shows up a few times in The Savage Detectives, albeit under the pseudopseudonym “J.M.G. Arcimboldi,” identified as a “Frenchman,” the author of The Endless Rose, his second novel in 2666). Cesárea Tinajero is also repeated in 2666’s Florita Almada, a psychic medium who not only testifies to, but also tries to stop, the unrelenting violence in Santa Teresa.

I suppose I could keep teasing out these intertextual meetings. I could point out that Detectives character Joaquín Font winds up in an insane asylum babbling about fate (fate and insanity being two major themes of 2666). I could point out that Auxilio Lacouture, narrator of Bolaño’s novella Amulet, gets to tell her story in miniature in Detectives. I could point out that the central figures (“central” is not the right word of course) of Detectives, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima are everywhere in the Bolañoverse—even unnamed, it is clear that one of the duo fathers the bastard Lalo Cura, one of the good detectives of 2666. But what would be my point in elaborating detail after detail here? Or, and perhaps this is the real question I mean to ask here—is a full reading of The Savage Detectives ultimately dependent on intertextual relationships with other Bolaño books?

Maybe a better way to finish here is to hash out the last few pages of the novel, which find our narrator García Madero driving around Sonora with Lupe, on the run from the law (maybe). The last few entries of the book—in diary form—are simply a list of place names, obscure places in the Sonora desert the pair presumably drive to. García Madero takes up the mantle of exile and reads Cesárea Tinajero’s notebooks, which perhaps influence him—the last three entries of Detectives feature pictographic riddles that recall Tinajero’s visual poem “Sion.” Here is the final entry, which is also the final page of the book—

20120819-152744.jpg

I suppose there are plenty of answers to Bolaño’s final riddle. What’s outside the window? Abyssvoiduncertainty. Aporia. And also: Possiblityopennessfreedom. Certainty. And also: The perforated suggestions of a shape, lines to guide our scissors, form. And also: It’s to be taken literally, a literal dare to the reader to get up, to look out, to see. I could probably keep going.

If we know Bolaño’s detective games, we know that the mysteries are really labyrinths, mazes where we might get trapped and go insane. (The Savage Detectives is in large part a novel that outlines the risks—mental, physical, emotional—of literature). How do I read the gaps in the visual riddle? The gesture is visual ambiguity, paradox. The dashes open to void and close to make form; they define yet are indefinite; the window is there and is not there. So what we’re left with is a way of seeing, or at least an invitation to a way of seeing, which is to say a way of reading. So, if you like—and I like—what’s outside the window is the rest of the Bolañoverse—or at least an offer to play detective.

Discussion of Fears (A Passage from Roberto Bolaño’s Novel 2666)

There are odder things than sacraphobia, said Elvira Campos, especially if you consider that we’re in Mexico and religion has always been a problem here. In fact, I’d say all Mexicans are essentially sacraphobes. Or take gephyrophobia, a classic fear. Eots of people suffer from it. What’s gephyrophobia? asked Juan de Dios Martinez. The fear of crossing bridges. That’s right, I knew someone once, well, it was a boy, really, who was afraid that when he crossed a bridge it would collapse, so he’d run across it, which was much more dangerous. A classic, said Elvira Campos. Another classic: claustrophobia. Fear of confined spaces. And another: agoraphobia. Fear of open spaces. I’ve heard of those, said Juan de Dios Martinez. And one more: necrophobia. Fear of the dead, said Juan de Dios Martinez, I’ve known people like that. It’s a handicap for a policeman. Then there’s hemophobia, fear of blood. That’s right, said Juan de Dios Martinez. And peccatophobia, fear of comitting sins. But there are other, rarer, fears. For instance, clinophobia. Do you know what that is? No idea, said Juan de Dios Martinez. Fear of beds. Can anyone really fear beds, or hate them? Actually, yes, there are people who do. But they can deal with the problem by sleeping on the floor and never going into a bedroom. And then there’s tricophobia, or fear of hair. That’s a little more complicated, isn’t it? Yes, very much so. There are cases of tricophobia that end in suicide. And there’s verbophobia, fear of words. Which must mean it’s best not to speak, said Juan de Dios Martinez. There’s more to it than that, because words are everywhere, even in silence, which is never complete silence, is it? And then we have vestiphobia, which is fear of clothes. It sounds strange but it’s much more widespread than you’d expect. And this one is relatively common: iatrophobia, or fear of doctors. Or gynophobia, which is fear of women, and naturally afflicts only men. Very widespread in Mexico, although it manifests itself in different ways. Isn’t that a slight exaggeration? Not a bit: almost all Mexican men are afraid of women. I don’t know what to say to that, said Juan de DiosMartinez. Then there are two fears that are really very romantic: ombrophobia and thalassophobia, or fear of rain and fear of the sea. And two others with a touch of the romantic: anthophobia, or fear of flowers, and dendrophobia, fear of trees. Some Mexican men may be gynophobes, said Juan de DiosMartinez, but not all of them, it can’t be that bad. What do you think optophobia is? asked the director. Opto, opto, something to do with the eyes, my God, fear of the eyes? Even worse: fear of opening the eyes. In a figurative sense, that’s an answer to what you just said about gynophobia. In a literal sense, it leads to violent attacks, loss of consciousness, visual and auditory hallucinations, and generally aggressive behavior. I know, though not personally, of course, of two cases in which the patient went so far as to mutilate himself. He put his eyes out? With his fingers, the nails, said the director. Good God, said Juan de Dios Martinez. Then we have pedophobia, of course, which is fear of children, and ballistophobia, fear of bullets. That’s my phobia, said Juan de Dios Martinez. Yes, I suppose it’s only common sense, said the director. And another phobia, this one on the rise: tropophobia, or the fear of making changes or moving. Which can be aggravated if it becomes agyrophobia, fear of streets or crossing the street. Not to forget chromophobia, which is fear of certain colors, or nyctophobia, fear of night, or ergophobia, fear of work. A common complaint is decidophobia, the fear of making decisions. And there’s a fear that’s just beginning to spread, which is anthrophobia, or fear of people. Some Indians suffer from a heightened form of astrophobia, which is fear of meteorological phenomena like thunder and lightning. But the worst phobias, in my opinion, are pantophobia, which is fear of everything, and phobophobia, fear of fear itself. If you had to suffer from one of the two, which would you choose? Phobophobia, said Juan de Dios Martinez. Think carefully, it has its drawbacks, said the director. Between being afraid of everything and being afraid of my own fear, I’d take the latter. Don’t forget I’m a policeman and if I was scared of everything I couldn’t work. But if you’re afraid of your own fears, you’re forced to live in constant contemplation of them, and if they materialize, what you have is a system that feeds on itself, a vicious cycle, said the director.

From “The Part About the Crimes,” 2666 by Roberto Bolaño.

Under the Volcano — Malcolm Lowry

Most of Malcolm Lowry’s dense, depressing novel Under the Volcano takes place over the course of November 2nd, 1938, the Mexican Day of the Dead. Like a reticent, dour Virgil, Lowry guides the reader through the day’s tragic arc, floating between the minds of his novel’s three protagonists: Geoffrey Firmin, his half-brother Hugh, and Geoffrey’s estranged wife Yvonne. Geoffrey is British Consul to Mexico — ex-Consul, really, as British-Mexican relations sour against the backdrop of Spanish fascism and the rise of nationalism in Mexico — but he is almost always referred to as “the Consul,” a blackly ironic title. See, the Consul bears little authority aside from an extreme expertise on how to stay drunk (or “drunkly sober un-drunk”) 24/7. He’s ambassador to bar stools, a manager of mescal and little else (certainly not his own life; certainly not diplomatic affairs). The Consul is a wreck, an alcoholic to put Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s (and even Bukowski’s) alter-egos to shame.

After a first chapter that seems to derail all but the most patient readers, the narrative conflict arrives when Yvonne returns to Quauhnahuac, Mexico, a year after leaving (and divorcing) the Consul. She arrives to find the Consul (“Geoffrey,” as he’s called when the free indirect style inhabits her mind) drinking whiskey in a hotel bar in order to sober up (yep). It’s not immediately clear why Yvonne has returned to the Consul, but it seems that she hopes to save him from drowning in a drunken downward spiral. As the pair walks to the Consul’s house, they pass numerous advertisements for a boxing match; a child’s funeral proceeds down the avenue. These motifs of fighting, death, and futility permeate the novel.

During the walk we learn that Yvonne is not the only one concerned about the Consul’s health; his (much) younger brother Hugh has come to stay with him in the hopes of sobering him up. (Hugh employs a revolting and unsuccessful “strychnine cure”). That Hugh has also returned doubly complicates the plot. Much of Under the Volcano remains implicit, unnamed, hinted at, and this seems especially true of the implication that Yvonne cheated on the Consul with Hugh in the recent past (this implication may have been stated conclusively at some point in the novel, but I’ve only read the book once, which is perhaps like not having read it at all). What’s certainly clear is that Yvonne cheated on the Consul with a French filmmaker, Jacques Laruelle, a man whom the Consul, through sheer bizarre coincidence (but of course it isn’t sheer bizarre coincidence), spent a childhood summer with, an experience which bonded them as brothers in an Edenic holiday that eventually (inevitably) soured.

Despite her infidelities, Yvonne is generally present (I choose the verb “present” over “presented as” to highlight Lowry’s impeccable Modernist style) as a sympathetic character. Still, it is hard not to identify with the Consul (with “Geoffrey,” I suppose, if we are going to be familiar), the dark soul of this novel, and his complicated, painful feelings for Yvonne form the core of Volcano’s tragedy. He longs for her, pines for a complete life with her, yet resents her, cannot forgive her, hates her. For what? For leaving him. For betraying him. But perhaps foremost, he despises her inability to understand his alcoholism (he is particularly upset when she refuses to share a morning libation with him when they meet for the first time in a year). I’ll quote a passage at length now, one that showcases Lowry’s free indirect style, and one that reveals the strange indignities of the Consul’s sense of his own alcoholism. For context, dear reader, you must only know that Yvonne has suggested that she and the Consul might make long-term plans when he is sober “in a day or two”—

The Consul sat perfectly still staring at the floor while the enormity of the insult passed into his soul. As if, as if, he were not sober now! Yet there was some elusive subtlety in the impeachment that still escaped him. For he was not sober. No, he was not, not at this very moment he wasn’t! But what had that to do with a minute before, or half an hour ago? And what right had Yvonne to assume it, assume either that he was not sober now, or that, far worse, in a day or two he would be sober? And even if he were not sober now, by what fabulous stages, comparable indeed only to the paths and spheres of the Holy Cabbala itself, had he reached this stage again, touched briefly once before this morning, this stage at which alone he could, as she put it, “cope,” this precarious precious stage, so arduous to maintain, of being drunk in which alone he was sober! What right had she, when he had sat suffering the tortures of the damned and the madhouse on her behalf for fully twenty-five minutes on end without having a decent drink, even to hint that he was anything but, to her eyes, sober? Ah, a woman could not know the perils, the complications, yes, the importance of a drunkard’s life! From what conceivable standpoint of rectitude did she imagine she could judge what was anterior to her arrival? And she knew nothing whatever of what all too recently he had gone through, his fall in the Calle Nicaragua, his aplomb, coolness, even bravery there—the Burke’s Irish whiskey! What a world! And the trouble was she had now spoiled the moment.

The “fall in the Calle Nicaragua” the Consul references is quite literally a drunkard’s blackout (followed by the aforementioned fortifying whiskey, courtesy of a tourist), but it — falling — is perhaps the dominant motif in a novel crammed with motifs. In allegorical terms, if we want to ruin a good book (I don’t recommend this, of course), Volcano is pure Faust-stuff: end of innocence, fall of man, intractability of the human condition, ethical peril, moral inertia. While the Consul’s fall dominates the novel, Lowry brings this decline into dramatic relief in a late, climactic episode when his (anti-)heroic trio encounter a dying (dead?) man on the side of the road. Hugh tries to help, but the Darwinian venality of Mexican commonplace law makes his attempt impotent. Yvonne and the Consul are basically paralyzed.

Hugh’s attempt to save the man is a desperate call to action, an endeavor to perform some good in a world dominated by war and fascism. Hugh’s character fascinates. We learn of his past in one of the novel’s most intriguing episodes, a mini-bildungsroman that finds young Hugh working in the merchant marine as a calculated ploy to lend romance to his persona — he longs to prevail as a songwriter. He returns to find that no one cares about — has even heard — his guitar compositions; his publicity stunt fails. Although Hugh is only twenty-nine, he already seems himself as a failure, a fallen hero; he obsesses over the Battle of Ebro, daydreaming of helming a ship laden with hidden arms that he will deliver to the Loyalists who oppose the Fascists. Hugh’s greatest pain — and perhaps (only perhaps) Lowry’s greatest cruelty — is the awareness that the idealism of romantic heroism is intrinsically bound to a kind of selfish egoism. Hugh, perhaps with the visceral signal of his half-brother as a kind of radical prescience, can already see his own fall; his parts in Volcano are in a sense a constant meditation on falling. Hugh tries to save the dying man on the road, the cold double of his brother, whom he also tries to save — and yet it is all to little avail.

In Lowry’s world, in the volcano-world, there is only expulsion from the Eden. Lowry spells out this theme near the middle of his novel in a strange episode. The Consul wanders into his neighbor’s garden and reads a sign —

¿LE GUSTA ESTE JARDÍN?
¿QUE ES SUYO?
¡EVITE QUE SUS HIJOS LO DESTRUYAN!

The Consul stared back at the black words on the sign without moving. You like this garden? Why is it yours? We evict those who destroy! Simple words, simple and terrible words, words which one took to the very bottom of one’s being, words which, perhaps a final judgement on one, were nevertheless unproductive of any emotion whatsoever, unless a kind of colourless cold, a white agony, an agony chill as that iced mescal drunk in the Hotel Canada on the morning of Yvonne’s departure.

Significantly, either the sign is posted with improper punctuation, or (and?) the Consul’s translation is wrong — in either case a meaningful misreading occurs. We later receive the “proper” version of the sign: “¿Le gusta este jardín, que es suyo? ¡Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan! – “Do you like this garden that is yours? See to it that your children do not destroy it!”  The Consul’s first reading is a corruption, a cruel misreading that questions humanity’s right to happiness, and, tellingly, he connects the sign to the end of his relationship with Yvonne. The second version of the sign, while still foreboding, perhaps signals a kernel of hope in Lowry’s bleak work — the idea that a garden might be preserved, might be tended to; that children might be raised who do not kill, cheat, steal, rape, enslave, or otherwise prey on each other. Still, Lowry refuses to imagine what such a world might look like for us. Did I mention that Volcano is really, really sad?

For all its bleak, bitter bile, Volcano contains moments of sheer, raw beauty, especially in its metaphysical evocations of nature, which always twist back to Lowry’s great themes of Eden, expulsion, and death. Lowry seems to pit human consciousness against the naked power of the natural world; it is no wonder then, against such a grand, stochastic backdrop, that his gardeners should fall. The narrative teems with symbolic animals — horses and dogs and snakes and eagles — yet Lowry always keeps in play the sense that his characters bring these symbolic identifications with them. The world is just the world until people walk in it, think in it, make other meanings for it.

In many ways, Under the Volcano is an antipodal response to Joyce’s Ulysses. Both novels stream through a number of consciousnesses over the course of one day; both novels invert and subvert mythical frameworks against diurnal concerns; both novels point to the ways that the smallest meannesses — and kindnesses — can color and affect our lives. And while there are many divergences (chiefest, I believe, the spirit of redemption in Ulysses that seems entirely absent from Volcano), the greatest similarity may be their difficulty. Simply put, Lowry, like Joyce, throws his readers into the deep end. The first chapter of the novel inhabits the mind of Jacques Laruelle and takes place exactly one year after the events of the rest of the novel. It is both overture and context for all that follows, and yet it is radically alienating; indeed, it only fully makes sense after one finishes the novel and goes back and reads it again, realizing it is the rightful coda, the sad epilogue of a sad story. Lowry leads with his conclusion, show us the fall-out up front, the splinters and shards of the narrative to come. Picking up these pieces is hardly easy and never joyful, but it is a rewarding experience. Very highly recommended.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept ran this review in March of 2011; we run it again in honor of The Day of the Dead]