by Carolyn Brown
Day of the Dead — when the boundary between the land of the living and that of the dead becomes porous — could not be stamped out of Mexican culture by Spanish missionaries and was instead uneasily grafted onto All Souls’ Day. Over the succeeding four centuries, its primordial appeal has never flagged. “We Mexicans have a weird relationship with death,” explained one of my students as we drove by a cemetery festooned with marigolds and tables of offerings — ofrendas — for the festival. “We laugh at it, and we hate it.”
And so a young English writer, Malcolm Lowry, living south of Mexico City in the mid-1930s found in Day of the Dead the perfect metaphor for Dante’s inferno in the modern world. The resulting novel, Under the Volcano, takes place on Day of the Dead, 1938, in the Mexican town of Cuernavaca (called by its indigenous name, Quauhnahuac). Exactly 75 years to the day later, I attended an international colloquium with a small group of the novel’s devotees in Cuernavaca. And I learned that the novel, published in 1947 to acclaim and mass popularity but since consigned to cult status, has a renewed following in the country that inspired it.
Among those keeping Lowry’s name alive, I should mention Óscar Menéndez, a filmmaker whose short film Under the Volcano is Cuernavaca has recently been released. Menéndez was the master of ceremonies for the little gathering, held in the Casona John Spencer in a central area near the cathedral and botanical garden.
Spencer, who died in 2004 and bequeathed his home to the municipality, contributed another piece of the Lowry resurgence. A British architect who visited Cuernavaca, fell in love with it and never left, Spencer discovered the novel and tried to save many of the Cuernavaca locations featured in it. The home of M. Laruelle in the novel — in reality an art deco inn where Lowry started to write the novel — was preserved thanks to Spencer’s intervention, and is now Hotel Bajo el Volcán. (The Casino de la Selva, abandoned and rotting, was too dilapidated to be preserved; there is now a Costco on the site.)
Spencer’s success in saving the inn was the subject of his essay “Saving Lowry’s Eden,” now also the title of a Spanish-language book about Spencer, produced by a close friend of Spencer’s, John Prigge of Boston, along with Dany Hurpin of Paris, both at the colloquium. I chatted with both about their efforts, and their infection with the Lowry bug as a result of Spencer’s enthusiasm. I also spoke with Yolanda, a local woman who read the novel while completing her degree in “philosophy and letters” from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the large state university where I occasionally teach academic English. Yolanda pointed out that she is a rarity — in Mexico, knowledge of Cuernavaca’s brief appearance in English literature is sparse.
Alberto Rebollo is trying to remedy this situation; he has written a small academic book on Lowry and the novel to better inform his Mexican peers of this literary heritage, and he succeeds in selling me a copy. I can’t suppress a smile when Rebollo refers to the “lowryana community,” which has coalesced around his Fundación Malcolm Lowry.
I explain to Rebollo that Canada claims Lowry as much as Mexico does: Lowry completed writing Under the Volcano in a cabin he built for himself and his second wife — the meltdown of his first marriage in Cuernavaca was part of the inspiration for the novel — in Dollarton, BC. And the BC coast appears in the novel as a vision of a future paradise.
The colloquium wraps up with a toast to Lowry, featuring Mexico’s famously strong distilled agave liquor, mescal — in the novel, mescal is the signal that the tragic anti-hero is spiralling toward perdition. The group thus christens one room in Spencer’s casona as la barranca in honour of Lowry. A unique feature of the geography of Cuernavaca, barrancas are deep clefts formed in the rock by the many streams and rivers. In Under the Volcano, these near-bottomless ravines become the portal to hell.
Fortified, I leave the gathering and walk back to my hotel outside the town centre. I follow a map in Rebollo’s book that shows the routes taken by the characters, and I realize that I am walking past the house where Lowry and his first wife lived. I turn left at a junction and cross a bridge over a barranca, where the sound of rushing water fills the air. Swifts fly into the barranca to roost for the night, and yucca and bamboo trees, storeys high, sway in the light wind. I realize that this is the bridge crossed by Laruelle in chapter 1 of Under the Volcano, and this is the barranca that ran behind Lowry’s house. I, too, have become entangled in the legacy of the novel.