I recently finished reading Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. It’s quite a book: intelligent, sad, rambling, long and intense. In fact, if the analogy is not too obscure, reading it is a bit like walking up a mountain in the fading light; you are aware of glimpses of beauty here and there, yet it is hard to ever forget the imposing darkness and great weight of your pack bearing down on you. Yes, that’s the kind of book this is.

The tale is undoubtedly a sad one: it focuses on the last day in the life of Geoffrey Firmin, the drunken British ex-consul in the small Mexican town of Quauhnahuac, as he drinks himself into oblivion.

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

The first chapter is set one year on from the main events of the novel, and so introduces some of the characters and sets the scene a little. Then the rest of the novel charts the events of Geoffrey Firmin’s last day – which, rather fittingly, happens to coincide with the local fiesta known as “The Day of the Dead”. This kind of symbolism is used a fair amount in the novel, which is in part an exploration into the spiritual struggle that Geoffrey faces. Being deeply depressed, Geoffrey lacks the strength to try and change himself, rather choosing to passively accept whatever happens to him, abdicating personal responsibility in favour of a semi-mystic, semi-lazy fatalism.

Although Firmin’s life is clearly in a mess, a faint ray of hope appears when his estranged wife turns up, on a mission to save him from himself. Then there is Firmin’s brother too and other friends, all wanting to help him escape from his severe drunkenness and depression and start re-building his life. However, theirs are not the only voices that he hears when deep in his mescal-soaked haze.

Although not an easy read by any measure (trying to follow pages and pages of Firmin’s drunken ramblings is no mean feat), this is a stark and powerful book. Being a true tragedy, I wouldn’t say I especially enjoyed reading it, however it is thought-provoking and Geoffrey and Yvonne Firmin are certainly characters that I am unlikely to forget.

But what was the use of a will if you had no faith? This indeed, she saw now, was also Yvonne Griffaton’s problem. This was what she too was seeking, and had been all the time, in the face of everything, for some faith – as if one could find it like a new hat or a house for rent! – yes, even what she was now on the point of finding, and losing, a faith in a cause, was better than none.

If you like this, you might also enjoy: Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory.