Of his host country sometime British novelist, short story writer, poet, wanderer and dipsomaniac Malcolm Lowry once said; “Mexico… is the most Christ-awful place in the world to be in any form of distress.”
His cry from the heart comes as little surprise from a writer perennially short of cash, his work seen as confusing and difficult to market, and his drinking habits consuming much of the money he received as an allowance from his wealthy, remote, and sometimes disapprovingly Victorian father. But in Cuernavaca, today a popular weekend getaway spot an hour or so south by car from the fumed-filled valleys of Mexico City, Lowry conceived and drafted the short story which would later grow to be a novel and become his contribution to quirky yet colourful literature as Under the Volcano.
Canadian commentator Sherrill Grace in an after word to Harper & Row’s Perennial Classics edition of Volcano suggests that it; “has acquired a reputation as an English language masterpiece along with Joyce’s Ulysses and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and the works of Samuel Beckett.”
A bout of inspiration from reading D. H. Lawrence’s Mornings in Mexico and The Plumed Serpent, and the news from his then wife Jan Gabrial that not only was Mexico very cheap but it was “one of the few truly barbarous countries worth living in,” caused the Lowrys to set sail in October 1936 for Acapulco, then an easy-going seaside town unaffected by mass tourism and high-rise towers.
And it was in Acapulco that Malcolm Lowry first fell for mescal, the less refined, less expensive, coarser cousin of tequila, noted for the customary white agave worm found in almost every bottle.
There is a myth that the worm, intended to be taken with the last offerings of the bottle, can deliver great strength to those brave enough to swallow it, for legend has it that the agave worm feeds on its namesake plant and that this contains hallucinogenic properties. Not so says scientific evidence, pointing instead to the peyote cactus as the source of the drug mescaline – with its confusingly similar name and more-than-just-confusing effect – by all accounts – on the mind. But as Lowry and his alter ego in the novel, Geoffrey Firmin (adroitly played by Albert Finney in John Huston’s 1984 shot-on-location movie) were to find, mescal imbibed in sufficient quantities, and mixed with a few other potent beverages, can certainly wreck havoc with reality.
The Lowrys traveled inland, briefly to Mexico City, but within weeks had found a house to rent in Cuernavaca for $44.00 a month – complete with live-in maid. It was a Spanish style villa at 62 Calle Humboldt, some five-minutes walk from the center of town. Its grounds encompassed a swimming pool, a garden blooming with tropical fruit trees, shrubs, flowers, and on a clear day a stunning view of the two volcanoes Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl.
The garden backed on to a rocky barranca, a deep tree-lined ravine with a gurgling brook at the bottom. A ravine with a history of deception and treachery, for it was here that Cortez at the time of the Spanish conquest, crossed it with his new-found allies the Tlaxcalans, on his way to vanquish dissident Aztecs. A ravine which called to Lowry’s wild imagination too, and became the setting for the final demise of a drunken, crumpled leading character not unlike the author who created him.
During a bus ride to a bullfight, the Lowry’s driver pulled up suddenly on noticing an Indian near death at the roadside. They and their curious fellow passengers got out to examine the man. A companion advised them against giving help, as Mexican law could cause serious problems for gringos who interfered in such matters. This did not stop another passenger, a so-called pelado, a `pealed one’, a good-for-nothing who preyed on the misfortunes of other paupers, to search the body and display with greed and glee a handful of blood-covered silver pesos.
At this time Lowry was wrestling with the implications of the Spanish Civil War. In Under the Volcano he envisages the Indian as representing the dying cause of democracy in a world threatened by fascist authoritarianism. It was all great material for a tale that would impress his contemporary critics with a symbolism indicative of those troubled times.
In an ever more urbanized world that has changed so much in almost sixty-six years, what has become of Lowry’s Cuernavaca – or Cuauhnahuac – The Place at the Edge of the Forest, as the Aztecs called it – Quauhnahuac as it became in Volcano? In 1936 it had a population of just over 8000. Today, its head count is in excess of 300,000. But its downtown charms for the most part remain, and Lowry, were he still alive, would recognize many of them, from the Zocalo, or Plaza de Armas, the main square with its colonnaded Government Palace on the western side, to the grimly fortress-like Palace of Cortez (to which its namesake retired for some years after conquering the country in the early 1530’s – with a grant of land from a grateful king of Spain) a few minutes walk to the south. The palace is now a museum.
At least one of Lowry’s regular bars, or cantinas, is still in business – La Universal, now a respectable and reasonably priced restaurant on the north side of the plaza, next door to the local McDonalds, while across the street to the west, in the smaller Jardin Juarez, is a picturesque bandstand, designed by a Frenchman later made famous by his Parisian landmark, Gustav Eiffel. The bandstand has a practical duel role, with stalls built into its base selling Mexico’s ubiquitous licuados, selections of fruit put through a blender with water or milk.
La Universal is said to be the inspiration for the El Faralito of Volcano, the final watering hole on the trail to self-destruction for Geoffrey Firmin, formerly His Britannic Majesty’s Consul, but currently jobless due to the severing of diplomatic relations between Mexico and Britain which followed the nationalization at that time of British owned assets in the oil industry. So such a man, in the eyes of local police officers of the day, could only be a spy, and should meet the fate of a spy, and what better place to dispose of the body of a spy than from the bridge over the barranca, the ravine at the bottom of a hill just a few minutes away from the cantina?
The bridge is still there too, with a wire-mesh safety net above the parapet now to stop suicides. Nearby Calle Humboldt, dubbed Calle Nicaragua in the novel, snakes its way south to the crest of a hill where today the Hotel Bajo El Volcan stands, and a plaque set on its stone-studded wall proclaims “Casa de Malcolm Lowry”.
About a mile north, on the same side of town, close to the long-distance bus terminus of the same name, is the now forlorn tree-lined entrance to the Casino de la Selva which also features in Volcano. Its iron gates are closed and clad in black plastic sheeting. Tethered German Shepherds strain at their leashes and bare their teeth at visitors who come too close. A prostrate watchman, stretched out on the driveway enjoying a late afternoon siesta barely lifts his head. A garage attendant nearby advises that the casino’s owner died some years ago – without a formal will, as is all too customary in these parts – so an ownership dispute remains entangled in legal red tape.
On the other side of town are the Borda Gardens, laid-out in 1783 by a family of wealthy Taxco silver merchants as an addition to their Cuernavaca home. For a few brief years in the mid 1860’s, this was the summer residence of the ill-fated Emperor Maximilian and his Empress Carlotta, and it was here that Lowry strolled with his wife and carved on a tree `Jan and Malcolm December 1936 – Remember me’. Today it seems a little shabby but still offers a shaded respite on hot sunny afternoons for locals and visitors alike, as does the less visited house and gardens – now a center for herbal medicines – a mile or so to the southeast. Here Maximilian had his rural retreat, colloquially called La Casa de Olvido, the House of Forgetfulness, because he built a cottage on the grounds for his mistress, but forgot to add quarters for his wife! Another local landmark familiar to Lowry, it was reached by a rural ride on horseback in their day, but its approaches are now surrounded by high-walled bougainvillea and vine clad villas – weekend retreats for Mexico City’s elite. And as with Lowry, La Casa de Olvido’s one-time residents have their own tale of tragedy and self-destruction to tell; but that is a story for another time.