On the Day of the Dead in Quauhnahuac, Mexico--possibly the most mispellable place in the world--British Consul Geoffrey Firmin's ex-wife comes back to him. He hasn't answered any of her letters; but still she's drawn to return to him by an inescapable love. When she arrives at seven in the morning, he's already in the cantina, drunk as un zorrillo. Probably his drinking was what drove them apart in the first place. But she returns to him anyway, hoping to save him from himself, and yet the passing year has only driven him deeper into the arms of the bottle.
She seeks refuge in the company of his visiting brother, Hugh, a committed Communist haunted by the Spanish Civil War, and with whom she may have already had an affair. The entire book takes place over that day, the Day of the Dead, whose name is not, for the three of them, merely a coincidence but a promise. We know from the first chapter, a flashforward, that the day ends with Geoffrey's violent death.
If In Search of Lost Time is the classic novel of memory, Under the Volcano is the novel of drunkenness. Lowry captures the disorienting feeling of being borracho exactly, with all of its attendant hallucinations and phantasmagorias. It's not easy reading: from one paragraph to the next, Geoffrey might end up in the bathroom and have to trace his own steps to figure out how he got there. Lowry is coy about giving us an objectivity Geoffrey doesn't and can't possess; at one point he writes that the Consul "either thought or said" something. Lowry's style, even in chapters closer to the point of view of Hugh or Yvonne, is characterized by long, circuitous, heavy sentences which take on a sinister maze-like quality when used for Geoffrey. But what they capture, they capture exquisitely:
The Consul sat helplessly in the bathroom, watching the insects which lay at different angles from one another on the wall, like ships out on the roadstead. A caterpillar started to wriggle toward him, peering this way and that, with interrogatory antennae. A large cricket, with polished fuselage, clung to the curtain, swaying it slightly and cleaning its face like a cat, its eyes on stalks appearing to revolve in its head. He turned, expecting the caterpillar to be much nearer, but it too had turned, just slightly shifting its moorings. Now a scorpion was moving slowly across toward him. Suddenly the Consul rose, trembling in every limb. But it wasn't the scorpion he cared about. It was that, all at once the thin shadows of the isolated nails, the stains of murdered mosquitos, the very scars and cracks of the wall, had begun to swarm, so that, wherever he looked, another insect was born, wriggling instantly toward his heart. It was as if, and this was what was most appalling, the whole insect world had somehow moved nearer and now was closing, rushing in upon him.
Among the perfectly rendered phrases in that passage, I want to select for special praise the description of the cricket with "polished fuselage." Lowry is full of perfectly alienating phrases like that, which despite being just plain beautiful, communicate the alienation of Geoffrey from his surroundings. I also liked a group of stags which look at the trio "in all their monarchical unlikelihood" and a description of "[r]ows of dead lamps like erect snakes."
But I couldn't help shaking the feeling that Under the Volcano is somehow less than the sum of all of its striking parts. For every arresting paragraph there's three more that are plain slogs, that twist and turn and end up somewhere not quite worth the attention. The story itself, such as it is, never quite operates on the level of believable human interaction. Yes, I will buy that the Consul is incapable of making a fuss when his wife returns because his soul and his brain are so pickled. But I don't quite buy the way that Yvonne shows up, not to have it out with Geoffrey, but to go off immediately on a horseback ride with Hugh. When things do happen--like the violent climax, in which the drunk-ass Consul ineptly navigates his final encounter with la policia--it can be painfully muddled and obscure. The narrative digs deep into the three characters' souls with such indelible detail and psychological realism that it never quite pays enough attention to the surface.