Pulque, mescal y tequila

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry 1947

Lowry_Under_VolcanoWhen 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 – “
–          “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.

  1. March 5, 2013 at 9:13 am

    I read it as a teenager and loved it but I feel it requires a certain state of mind to fully understand. And not in the sense of cultural background, more in the sense of similar experiences. Like Naked Lunch… books which are difficult to understand when you are sober. 🙂


    • March 5, 2013 at 11:23 pm

      Yes, I can see the point but how do you keep your eyes straight to read if you’re not sober? 🙂
      Sure, the chapters when the Consul speak are more difficult to read because his thinking is blurred by alcohol.


      • March 6, 2013 at 8:12 am

        Training… 🙂


        • March 6, 2013 at 12:43 pm

          Right. In another life then, I’m not much of a drinker. 🙂


  2. March 5, 2013 at 10:00 am

    Nice post, Emma! Wonderful to know that Malcolm Lowry’s book took you back in time and made you remember one of your favourite songs and understand more about it. It is always wonderful when we are able make this connection and understand something more deeply, even if it is years later. Enjoyed reading your impressionist post 🙂 Hope you continue to enjoy reading the book. Happy reading!


    • March 5, 2013 at 11:26 pm

      Thanks for the positive and kind “impressionist” tag. Disorganized accurately describes this post but my thoughts are a bit scattered. It’s getting better as I read further. I hope I’ll be able to put together a sensible billet about it.


  3. March 5, 2013 at 5:48 pm

    I haven’t read this but it’s on the radar thanks to the film version (in which Finney plays a great drunk, as usual). It’s also a most favourite book of a friend of mine, so that means something too.


    • March 5, 2013 at 11:34 pm

      I’d like to watch the film, afterwards.
      My mom says she’s seen it made into a play and that it was boring. I don’t know how they can turn this into a play, there are so many things hanging from the setting, the nature around. I can see how it can be a great film, but a play, no way, it’s doomed.


  4. March 6, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    I really like the passage that you quoted above. Lowry does indeed seem like a very creative writer. I look forward to your review at the conclusion.

    I often think of all the mysterious references that I encountered inn my youth that Google would have demystified. Perhaps in that way these things would have been a little less interesting.


    • March 6, 2013 at 12:49 pm

      His style is marvellous, I’m curious about the film. There’s really good material for an excellent film but it can also turn into a disaster if it’s not subtle enough.

      About references, I think about it too, from time to time. Especially when I’m at a museum, for example, looking at a painting, missing a reference and I just grab my cell phone to check it out.
      The other thing like this that you don’t experience since you’re American is catching an old song in English on the radio, one that was just a jumble of sounds when you were 15, hear it now and understand the lyrics immediately. It’s strange.


  5. March 9, 2013 at 4:03 pm

    I nearly got this other month at our oxfam but it had gone when I went back ,I wish I’d picked it up now ,many thanks for sharing your thoughts on it ,all the best stu


    • March 9, 2013 at 6:27 pm

      I’ve read more of it now and I think I’ll be able to write a proper billet about it. Not a review, I’m not cultured enough for it but at least my thoughts.


  6. March 10, 2013 at 10:51 pm

    That quote is just fabulous. I’m looking forward to the full billet.


    • March 11, 2013 at 11:03 pm

      I have lots of quotes and his style is fantastic. I’ll try to find other reviews about it, it’s certainly worth reading several posts about it.


  1. March 17, 2013 at 3:05 pm
  2. February 14, 2016 at 9:31 am

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