I am not going redraft the following review yet again in spite of its offensive tone as it stands now. Just chalk it up to a propensity of mine. After reading a book that is especially meaningful for me, I tend to clutch it to my scrawny chest and try to protect it from any further readers. That is what occurred here.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Upon putting a book there on the bookshelf as one that I have read and then assigning it a certain number of stars, I always feel compelled to write something about the book in explanation. I have been slow to add that explanation in this case for the simple reason that I had to read this novel a second time, with a short break for a Céline in between those two readings. However, that confession along with the five stars appended above might erroneously be interpretted to mean that I recommend others read this novel.
First of all, I never recommend books to others . . . with the sole exception of Tess of the Dubervilles for the light it sheds on relationships. Second, in this case I strongly recommend that others not attempt this novel, undoubtedly one of the ten most important novels for me personally that I have ever read. (I live in constant dread that one of the ten most important novels for me personally remains out there somewhere unread by me.) It is on this point that I wish to elaborate here—why others would be best served by not reading this novel.
Some real understanding of the political situation in 1938 is necessary for an understanding of both the action in the novel, to the extent there is action, and the angst of the characters themselves, not just that of the Consul but also that of his half brother Hugh. And that of M. Laureulle, too, for that matter. I speak here not only of the political situation in Europe at the time but also of the political situation in Mexico. A preliminary study of Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell and Mexico: Biography of Power by Enrique Krauze would be a good start in preparation for reading this novel.
I write with tongue a bit in my cheek there. Yet, I find that most norteamericanos do not give a shit about Mexico or its history. They have a vague idea of it as a violence-ridden geographical blob to the south and are repulsed by it. There is irony in that here. I am told that apparently Malcolm Lowry himself wrote in a letter that Mexico is “the most Christ-awful place in the world in which to be in any form of distress, a sort of Moloch that feasts on suffering souls.” I think it fair to say that Stephen Spender, who provided the Introduction for my edition, sees this novel in some significant part as a portrayal of that sentiment. I disagree with him in that.
The descriptions of Mexico, the setting of this novel, are so lyrical, so amazingly accurate, although at times disgusting and at times a dark foreshadowing of events, that one cannot help but conclude that the Consul’s redemption lies right there in the place where he is in spite of his ultimate embrace of Yvonne’s daydreams about that beautiful little cottage in British Columbia. The Consul, however, is a man dead set against his own redemption. My point here, however, is that a love for Mexico, for both its overwhelming beauty and its garbage-strewn ugliness, consonant with The Consul’s own apparent love for it (apparent in my opinion), enhances immensely one’s enjoyment of this novel. Without that, it would be a much diminished book in the mind of its reader.
Then there is the density of the allusions to classical literature, to myth, to German poetry, to so much of the Western Canon in which the Consul, Hugh, and M. Laurelle indulge themselves. There have been books written solely for the purpose of explaining those allusions in this novel. A Companion to Under the Volcano by Christopher J. Ackerly and Lawrence J. Clipper, now out of print and unavailable, is one of those. Large chunks of that book are available in Google Books, and those chunks are excellent. But I have difficulty imagining a reader, other than one so excessively educated in what we laughingly call the Liberal Arts that he has had difficulty making his way in real life and earning a living, who would enjoy the literary allusions let alone revel in them. In this day education is regarded solely as job training, an avenue to gainful employment. That lets out many a contemporary reader as far as this aspect of the novel is concerned.
Then there is the Spanish. I mention this because I have so often heard readers complain, for example, about all the French in War and Peace. Those few who have attempted it anyway. There are no long passages in Spanish in this novel, but some facility in the language adds so much to the enjoyment of it. The Consul smokes Alas cigarettes, a brand still extant in Mexico. “Alas,” with its sad English usage, means “wings” in Spanish. There is play upon that dichotomy in the novel, one example of what I am talking about. A total ignorance of Spanish would inhibit the enjoyment of this novel by another large group of readers.
Last, for our purposes here, there is the fact that the Consul is drunk during the entire day, this one last day that comprises the time span of the action of the novel. Far and away enough has been written about that by others. My own point is simply that a reader who has himself struggled with that affliction is in a better position to appreciate this aspect of the novel than one who has not, which lets out another large group of readers deficient in that life experience.
There is more, but that is enough, I hope, to persuade readers who are considering this novel to put it out of mind and move on to something else.