10 June 2010
… which take us to about a third of the way through the book. We know something terrible has happened on the Mexican Day of the Dead, but we don’t know what it is. Chapter 1 (if I’ve got this right) is set on that day in 1939, and Lowry is following the thoughts of a man who has known ‘the consul’ nearly all his life. We have to piece their back story together from fragments of memories and random musings as Jaques Laruelle, apparently a film-maker living in this obscure town, erratically fails to make his way home from one last tennis game. He’s leaving tomorrow, but the idea is painful to him as he thinks back to what happened on the same day a year ago. The consul’s wife Yvonne is involved, and so is his younger half-brother Hugh, who might once have had an affair with her…. We know about the consul’s heavy drinking because Laruelle has been talking about it to his tennis-partner, a doctor. The doctor wryly remembers he had been drinking with the consul the night before last year’s Day of the Dead and was concerned enough to send a boy to check he was all right. Ominous, or what?
Don’t ask me why we start all this with Laruelle, a character who doesn’t appear again for entire chapters after this one. Except it’s obvious that Lowry never wants to make it easy for us. For instance, it only emerges gradually that the consul’s name is Geoffrey Firmin, (I’ll call him the consul, because that’s what Lowry does. Yvonne calls him Geoffrey, Hugh calls him Geoff and Laruelle calls him Firmin. Names, eh? Arbitrary labels that remind us what strangers we are to everybody else.) He and Laruelle met as kids when they were both staying with a hyperactive, hard-drinking family of English boys. The young Firmin already had a back-story by then: his parents had died in India, and his relatives were looking for a family which might be able to provide some spiritual solace. But he didn’t fit in, didn’t even like drinking at this point in his life – how we laughed – so Laruelle’s arrival was welcome. However, the plan that Laruelle should finish his schooling in England fell through and he went back to France. (I’m not sure why I’m telling you all this. Maybe it’s important.)
But their paths must have crossed again. It turns out that Yvonne had been Laruelle’s wife or lover until Firmin came back into the Frenchman’s life. Don’t ask me what the three of them are now doing in this one-horse Mexican backwater – I’m not sure that even Laruelle knows why he’s there. Except Yvonne is one of the most photogenic women he has ever worked with, and when he arrives there and realises that’s where they’re both living, he stays, for something like three years. This is still Chapter 1, and we don’t know who any of these people are. Ok. The previous year, Hugh had also been in the town, and – and what? Did somebody die? There are enough portents and symbolic echoes of death during Laruelle’s wanderings to suggest that any survivors were lucky to get out alive.
Now, Laruelle reaches the local fleapit and is having a drink with the owner while they wait for the electricity to come back on for tonight’s showing of The Hands of Orlac (in which Peter Lorre is haunted by the murderer’s hands grafted on to his own arms). The owner gives him the consul’s copy of Elizabethan plays that Laruelle had left in the cinema ages ago. And, reader, it contains an unsent letter from the consul to Yvonne, in which he pleads with her to come back. It was written 18 months ago, six months before the event that Lowry is keeping us in the dark about. (Try to keep up.) Obviously the marriage had completely broken down, and the letter is desperate. She’d been away from the town long enough for him to have failed to receive a lot of her own letters: she’d assumed he could no longer have been living there and had been sending them to Mexico City.
It’s a typical doom-laden accident, like Laruelle’s arrival in the same town as his ex-friend and ex-lover – and like the random page he picks in the book of plays. It’s the end of Doctor Faustus, and the Chorus laments his sad end: ‘Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight…’ and all that. Laruelle closes the book fast, but things aren’t looking good for our man. If some of the plot and doom-laden imagery sound a bit creaky here, well, that’s often how it feels as you read the novel. But among the confusion – which I’m assuming must be deliberate, to indicate Laruelle’s state of mind if not the state of the whole bloody country they’re all stuck in – there’s so much richness I couldn’t help being carried along. And I’ll come clean: I read this when I was 20 and loved every bit of it. And I can still see why.
In the next three chapters Lowry can afford to let things calm down a bit. At least, the plot can settle down – once we realise, a few pages into Chapter 2, that we’re now living through last year’s Day of the Dead and not this year’s. It’s soon clear – as if – that we’re going to find out what happened on that day, and Lowry seems to be taking us through it hour by hour. We start off, early, in a bar. There’s a confusion of conversations and thoughts. We’re inside the consul’s head, as he talks to the young bar attendant, or we’re hearing the loudmouthed American in the next room, or… we’re not sure what. And then (if I remember rightly) we’re following the thoughts of – guess – Yvonne. She’s just arrived back, having made the trip that the consul had assumed in his unsent letter could only be a fantasy, and she’s found her husband. Or ex-husband: their divorce has gone through while she’s been away. But she’s here now….
The narrative isn’t quite stream of consciousness, but sometimes it nearly is. Lowry definitely follows one consciousness at a time, and sometimes he’ll pursue a thought along the obscure byways of memory but, just as often, it’s – what? – it’s as though the collective consciousness of the whole town elbows its way in. As Yvonne arrives, the consul is trying to explain to somebody about the transportation by air of the corpse of a child – and suddenly we’re back in the same place as we were in Chapter 1, as the local population process from the cemetery, and as we will be later, in Chapter 4, when one of the characters sees the tiny lace-covered coffin of a different child. And if this death thing is laid on a bit thick, well, I’m ok with it.
Anyway. Chapters 2 and 3 are about two things: Yvonne’s return to their now wrecked house and ruined garden – she’s obviously been gone some time – and the consul’s drinking. There’s nothing hopeful about ether of these. For most of the hour or so it takes for them to reach the house, they don’t talk about anything very important. Instead – and this is a technique we’ve already seen with Laruelle in Chapter 1 – we’ll often get a paragraph or more of imaginary conversation describing the subtext of a single glance or a single suspected insincerity. Lowry’s characters – all of them, apparently – have rich internal lives in which there’s time to hold up the minutiae of ordinary interactions for meticulous examination.
And, of course, they are at least as likely to make mistakes in what the other is thinking as to get it right: conversations in this universe are as fraught with difficulties as the delivery of international mail before World War 2. (I don’t think I’m just being a smartarse when I make that comparison: all sorts of things make little echoes in the mind in this novel, not all of them as blatant as the wreck of the marital home or the constant references to death.) Quite often during these chapters I was reminded of Noel Coward: well educated, articulate people saying clever things and constantly misunderstanding one another.
By the end of Chapter 3, they might as well be on different planets: Yvonne has had her bath and the consul, having found himself face-down in the road, has come back and is on the other side of a door playing mind-games with a whiskey bottle. This, I assume, is Lowry writing about what he knows: Chapter 3 takes us on an excruciating tour of the dozens of mental tricks a heavy drinker will play with his own overwhelming desire to get another drink. How interesting is it? Now, 60-odd years after the novel’s publication, we’re cynical about alcoholism and familiar with the mental contortions a drinker will put himself through. But Lowry does a depressingly convincing job of making it seem almost heroic. Except not really, especially when he tries to feel proud of having a lie-down in the road like a gent rather than reeling around like a drunk.
It’s not surprising that when Hugh gets back from a trip to Mexico City – he’s staying with the consul for a few days or weeks, vainly trying to get his own life (and his half-brother’s) into some sort of shape – he and Yvonne leave the consul sleeping it off. They end up hiring a couple of horses and… and it’s clear that Hugh would be happy to rekindle the affair he and Yvonne had at some time in the past. If only… if only he hadn’t felt a crashing sense of guilt the first time, and if only she hadn’t come back specifically to get back together with her husband. (Guilt is almost a leitmotif with Hugh: when he describes The Hands of Orlac to her, it isn’t a two-bit horror flick about hands with a life of their own, it’s a psychological study of an artist’s guilt.)
He asks her outright about her intentions, and she tells him he isn’t a part of them. So it goes. As they ride along, he does his best – which isn’t very good – to help her paint an optimistic picture of her future life with her ex-husband. But it’s hard to see this man ever being happy. He’s just resigned his newspaper job, tired of prostituting himself as he half-seriously calls it, and is considering trying to make up for not volunteering to go to Spain two years ago by sailing on what sounds like a suicide mission. It’s what connects all these characters: they’re all unhappy, and it’s hard to see how any of them can do anything about it.
And I’m wondering what’s going to happen. Yvonne, having arrived only a couple of hours ago, has gone off with this bloke she once had an affair with. The consul is going to wake up, he’s going to get it all wrong, and something terrible is going to happen. And why, in a novel in which nothing is accidental or insignificant, has Lowry told us about how they once arrived home from a trip to discover that their cat had died and had been thrown down the local ravine? Gulp.
The consul’s endless day carries on. We’ve been stuck in the town for nearly two-thirds of the novel by the time we finally find ourselves on the 2.30 bus to Tomalin at the end of Chapter 7, and all day the consul has been playing an absurd cat-and-mouse game with alcohol in all its forms. We’re not always inside his head – the long Chapter 6 belongs to his brother – but it’s his consciousness we keep returning to, and it’s torture.
Lowry carries on doing disconcerting things with the time-line. The main thrust of the narrative is chronological, but Lowry shakes it about and loops it back on itself so that it feels no more straightforward for us than it does for the consul. Half-way through Chapter 5 Hugh and Yvonne return from their ride with the ice-cold beer they’ve bought at the brewery, but we find out what happens next from the inside of the consul’s head an hour later. As his bottle of beer reaches room temperature beside him, he has trouble with the fact that in his mind the things that have just happened are still happening, with the fact that he isn’t sure what was or wasn’t said, what might or might not have been meant if they were said…. More conventionally in the next chapter, we get about ten years of Hugh’s life-story from the age of 16 told in flashback as he takes a rest before their planned trip.
As in the first four chapters, almost everything that happens takes place inside people’s heads. And, again, the consciousnesses on display might be eternally separate – to an existential degree of awfulness – but the patterns of thought have so much in common they seem like the single clapped-out consciousness of the clapped-out country they’re in. I’m overstating it a bit, but – inside their heads – the brothers both seem embodiments of unfulfilled potential and a kind of chronic inability to take decisive action. Ok, that’s still not quite right. The consul is eleven years older, and before he collapsed into alcoholism he was someone to be looked up to and, genuinely (if we believe Hugh’s version) a force to be reckoned with. He even got a medal for his naval activities in the war. Hugh, on the other hand, can only think back in exquisite embarrassment to a life spent living out an immature dream (tell you more later). He isn’t greatness brought low, a Dr Faustus like his older brother but, in his own eyes, something much more pathetic.
There’s a bit of a problem with this greatness thing. Lowry has introduced his main character to us when he’s already the ex-consul, has already fallen from grace in far more significant ways. It’s difficult for us to reconcile the frankly pathetic figure running the gamut of alcoholic clichés with a) the creative force once singled for attention by Taskerson, the established poet whose family he moved in with as a child, b) the great man Yvonne is prepared to come back to after he’s become an alcoholic bore or c) the heroic figure he represents in his brother’s eyes.
But maybe we just have to bite this back and go with the idea that being pathetic doesn’t disqualify you from being tragic. At the beginning of Chapter 5, before Hugh and Yvonne get back from their ride, Lowry almost seems to be defying us – in the way that alcoholics also defy us – to be as negative as we like about the buffoon wandering about his ruined garden to the disgust of his ex-pat neighbour. It’s later in the same chapter that the consul thinks back over the continuing slow-motion car-crash of Yvonne’s first morning back with him. Lowry’s presentation of him is painfully honest, and seems totally convincing. Is it enough to make us care? Hmm.
How about Hugh? Is he any more appealing as he considers his own failure to make any kind of mark in the world as he approaches 30? And what is it with this particular milestone for pre-WW2 writers? I can remember this birthday creeping up on Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby and, as in Hugh’s case, it signals the end of the dreams and optimism of youth. It seems to explain why Hugh has decided to sign up on a ship of explosives in a last-ditch attempt to do something remarkable. It all seems to have started going wrong for him at the age of about 16. He’s – wait for it – a singer-songwriter, and his adult self cringes at the memory of leaving school to follow a fantasy.
I’m not sure why Lowry lets Hugh’s story go on so long – it’s the longest chapter so far – because there’s not really much to it. He goes to sea, but instead of a heroic defiance of convention it’s seen as a game being played by a rich kid. One by one, his adolescent fantasies fade away: the other crew-members cheat and rob him and, on his premature return to England, he discovers the (Jewish) music publisher has pocketed his money, printed his songs and… and nothing. So the idealism of youth – his defiant pro-working class and ant-anti-Semitic posturing – is trashed along with everything else. What else? Er…. He eventually realises, or thinks he realises, that people are only being polite about his guitar-playing, and secretly find his music rather dull. And so on. By the time he starts having some success in journalism it’s too late: he’s a failure in his own eyes.
When we get back to the present they start to get ready for the trip to Tomalin. There’s an ambiguous little scene in which Hugh shaves his brother: is he showing the consul the respect he always used to feel, or is he simply making this dead beat look half-way presentable? It feels entirely like the latter…. And if we thought we were going to start getting somewhere now, well, no chance. Time goes as slowly as it has all morning, and I began to suspect these characters were like the dinner-guests in Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, unable to leave a place becoming more squalid by the day. They meet Laruelle and the doctor, both of whom we first met in Chapter 1, and there’s a sense of deja-vu: we know this is a year earlier, but time seems to be stuck. There’s talk of Laruelle and the doctor playing tennis, The Hands of Orlac is playing at the cinema….
And there’s more confusion than I can keep a grip on here. They all end up at Laruelle’s house, which holds so many bad memories for the consul that he’s previously vowed never to go there again. The consul, of course, was the one who took Yvonne from Laruelle years before, but now all he can think of is the affair she had with the Frenchman when he turned up out of the blue. It sets in motion the most graphic image of disgust we’ve had so far, as the consul imagines the purple engorged thing beneath Laruelle’s waist, inside her…. I’m paraphrasing, but it’s not a pretty image. (And, now I’m thinking about it, Yvonne’s role seems to be entirely passive. She seems to be there only to make the lives of the three men more interesting, and more complicated.)
Anyway, once he’s found some decent whiskey the consul wanders off for a while, and we get one of those moments when the world outside and the world inside become almost the same thing. He gets on a fairground ride – don’t ask me why, and don’t ask him why either – and is soon upside-down with all his possessions falling to the ground. Even – gulp! – his passport goes, and that’s the one thing the children around don’t seem able to find. Is it really lost? Did he have it with him at all? He has no idea but, with the political situation as it is, without a passport even an ex-consul is almost literally a nobody.
Chapter 8, against all expectations (mine, anyway), begins with all three of them on the bus. Less unpredictably, the journey is fraught with – with what? – with Mexico thrusting itself at them. And us. The roads are awful, the police, when they appear, are threatening, and the poor, inevitably, are always with us. There’s a dying man on the roadside, probably the victim of a robbery, and Mexico won’t even let the Brits do anything about it: they are told they mustn’t touch him. Hugh does anyway, but it doesn’t do any good: the ersatz police are soon on to them and they have a struggle to get back on the bus. The only positive outcome isn’t positive at all: the near-beggar on the bus with them gets to pocket the coins the bandits appear to have left to throw investigators off the scent. As if anybody cares. There’s a paragraph during which Hugh (I think) pieces together the thought-processes of this petty thief who defiantly doesn’t hide the money he’s taken from the dying man…. It isn’t just the past that’s another country. To these Brits, Mexico’s another country as well. They do things differently there.
They get to Tomalin, and it appears to be shut. They’ve gone there in order to watch the bull-throwing – something like a bloodless bullfight, I think – but there doesn’t seem to be much going on. And… and that’s as much as I can remember of Chapter 8. They seem to have got out of their time-loop, only to find themselves in another one. Or are they simply in hell? For chapters now we’ve had the demons taunting the consul about his drinking, and from time to time – the old inside-outside trick – a masked devil figure will suddenly find its way into the field of vision of one or other of them. Wherever they are in this godforsaken country, there’s no reason for them to be. Hugh’s got his train ticket, and he’s out of there tonight – I forgot to mention that – although he’s only headed for a different circle of a different hell.
Meanwhile the consul, despite their pathetic attempt to get out for a few hours, isn’t going anywhere. Even if he did, he’d have to take himself with him, and what would be the point of that? As Popacatapetl looms behind them – has it moved closer after their bus journey? – they see a bar whose name proclaims that everybody is happy. Hugh, seeing the vultures above, thinks it’s especially true of them, and the last word of the chapter is – wait for it – death. Gulp, again.
Chapter 9 to the end
How can you get a huge landscape with jungles, looming volcanoes and almost apocalyptic thunder-storms side-by-side with an imprisoning sense of claustrophobia at the same time? Dunno, but Lowry manages it. Usually we’re inside the consul’s head, but it’s no relief in Chapter 10 when we’re inside Yvonne’s: that sense we’ve always had of separate consciousnesses somehow being part of the same scheme has never seemed stronger.
The Tomalin chapters continue on their unpromising way in Chapter 9. They get to the bull-throwing, and it’s pathetic. Hugh, who has experience on a ranch and dresses in cowboy clothes (I think I forgot to mention both of those) is bored stiff and, as the consul looks on appalled, decides to liven things up: he gets into the ring and climbs on the bull. He’s pretty good at it, and it becomes clear he is very much a man of his time. To him Mexico, like so many underachieving countries as perceived by men like him in the 1920s and 30s, represents – what? – forces of chaos that can overwhelm civilisation if we let them. So, like a good son of Empire, he shows them how it should be done. (There’s more to be said about Mexico and chaos. Maybe I’ll come back to them later.) Lowry does a novelistic thing: for a moment we think something terrible has happened to Hugh on the far side of the arena. I don’t know about you, but I’d forgotten that we know from the start that he survives this day… and he nonchalantly steps away from the bull.
Meanwhile – and I’m talking about while all Hugh’s boys’ own stuff is going on – we’re in Yvonne’s head. It isn’t the first time, but it feels like it because at last we start to piece together a back story and some motivation for her. (Up to now I’d been a bit bemused about why she’s bothering.) Lowry has to make the mixture of her memories and hopes do a lot of work: what he wants us to realise, I suppose, is that the consul is all she has. As with everybody else, it’s complicated: a child star in her time, Yvonne was never able to capitalise on it – and she never really progressed in her relationships after her father kills himself. We even hear, for the first time, of a pointless marriage to a pointless-sounding man. It’s the vision of a possible future that animates her now, and she seems to persuade the consul there’s a chance. Yeh, sure. Her dream is infiltrated by the figure of a woman in hysterics, and Mexico keeps shoving little signs in their direction: as an old man carrying an even older one struggles by, the road to dusty death has never seemed so hard.
They leave the arena and, as so often, the consul is separated from Yvonne and Hugh. They go swimming, he goes to a cantina. And when they join him for a meal he’s out of there again and is sitting on a preposterous marble toilet. He half-hears her and Hugh in the bar, half tries to join in their conversation about the dying man and his horse they encountered on the road…. But he turns most of his attention to a ridiculous tourist folder describing another town. From the beginning, I now realise, the consul has been Joyce’s Leopold Bloom on mescal. Adverts, papers, snatches of song and poetry keep intruding, often with the alienating layer of the foreign language he seems half-deliberately to be forgetting. The tourist folder is a clumsy translation, and it comes to represent something for the consul as he becomes more and more drunk. (He’s keeping up the ridiculous pretence that he’s sort of on the wagon, but he’s drinking whenever he’s on his own, as now: it’s the main reason for him being in the toilet. He contemplates the thousands of bottles of liquor he’s drunk in his life….)
Communication has never been possible in this book, and with the laughable English in the menu and the clunking language of the tourist folder – which he later chooses to quote from as a kind of taunt – it becomes a bitter joke. Yvonne tries to recapture the brief moment in the arena when a future seemed possible, but now, nothing she does or says can convince him. He ends up, in a series of steps Lowry presents as almost scripted from the alcoholic’s guide to shoving away everyone who cares about you, telling Yvonne it’s all a sham. He knows how vile he’s being but, well, that’s how you behave at this stage in the proceedings. And he does what he’s done three (or four, or five) times before during this endless day: he buggers off. As he leaves Yvonne with Hugh, again, we get the melodramatic parting shot of the piss-head: he can’t wait to get back to hell. If he knew what novel he was in he’d be more careful about what he says.
We don’t follow him into the next chapter. Instead, we’re with Yvonne again – and it’s what made me finally realise that whoever’s head we’re inside, it’s the same story and, essentially, the same sensibility. I don’t mean this as a criticism: for Lowry the existential discontent, the sense of failure and the impossibility of relationships are as inevitable a feature of the human condition as our insurmountable separateness. Phew. Meanwhile, Lowry throws all narrative caution to the winds. Or, more specifically, to the gathering thunderstorm that adds its own commentary. As time moves on, as it has all day, they urgently need to find the consul. It’s a leitmotif: Yvonne’s been trying to find the consul for years.
Inexplicably, as it gets dark and their search ought to become more pressing, both she and Hugh become distracted. He has a drink, she has a drink, he buys a guitar (eh?), they both have another drink. They need to get back to the town and there’s a storm approaching. Better take a short cut along the forest path – they have a torch, so that’s all right – and, oh dear, the mescal starts to mess with her mind. (I didn’t mention it was mescal she’s been drinking. Lowry really is blurring the lines between her and the consul.)
Yvonne’s journey through the forest, keeping ahead of Hugh in her desperation, is as incoherent a mass of memories and mistaken sightings of impossible things as anything we’ve seen the consul going through. When, as she climbs over the fallen tree and a horse comes crashing towards her – the horse, with a ‘7’ branded on its flank, that has crossed their paths several times already that day – we don’t know whether it’s a hallucination or something truly life-threatening. We realise it’s the second of these as Lowry, from the inside, describes the moment of violent death. It comes with a vision of their longed-for house consumed by fire –perhaps a sign that she always knew the dream would end like this. But it’s also Lowry’s clearest signal so far that the consul’s hell is Yvonne’s as well: in these final chapters he has the interior lives of these people overlapping to such an extent they’re almost indistinguishable.
Except… in the final chapter the consul is alone again. We’re in such familiar territory that at first we might think it’s safe: we’ve had our hellish moment of tragedy, and that’s what Laruelle had been referring to in the first chapter as he looked back to the days following this one. Hah. If there’s one thing I remember about this novel from when I first read it decades ago, it’s the ending. And we’ve had enough signs – ominous portents and the preternatural interconnections between him and Yvonne – to know that she’s not going to suffer her fate alone.
7 May 2011
I’ve re-read the final chapter. It’s the culmination of everything that has gone before, particularly in the merging within the consul’s consciousness of outside and inside. ‘Merging’ doesn’t do it justice. In what we might laughingly call the real world outside his head, novelistic things are taking place. Some of these involve the corrupt local police, and they are going to impinge on our man – but the consul’s awareness of their actuality only emerges out of a 30-odd page melee of memories, regrets and real conversations.
At one level he is clearly inside, or just outside, the real bar he found a couple of chapters ago, and the passing of time is as insistent and threatening as it has been all day: it’s 6 o’clock near the start of the chapter, and it’s 7 o’clock near the end. But inside his head there’s no order, and it’s a thankless task even trying to disentangle what is really happening from what is memory or a mescal-fuelled hallucination. We don’t know where we are any more than he does – no change there, then – as monsters from a Hieronimus Bosch nightmare morph into, for instance, the figure of a policeman leading a horse. Inevitably, the horse is branded with a ‘7’, and one of the men in the bar was at the crime scene on the road earlier….
What emerges from the mess, as he reads the package of Yvonne’s letters or attempts to laugh off the ever more threatening insinuations the men around him are making, is a real crisis. Lowry makes the existential crisis literal: beginning to sense the danger, the consul pretends he’s somebody else, Blackstone. He has no proof, obviously – and then comes the most novelistic twist we’ve had in the whole novel: he’s wearing Hugh’s jacket and, for the sake of argument, the police use the Anarchist papers in the pockets as proof of his treachery.
It doesn’t feel like a trick on Lowry’s part because the literal and metaphorical crises have come together. The identity the police cobble together for the consul – at least they have his surname right – is as reliable as anything he can come up with himself, and the preposterous motives they ascribe to him as plausible as anything he can say to the contrary. He doesn’t know who any of these people are – chief of Rostrums? Chief of Gardens? – but that doesn’t alter the fact that they have all the power now. And more than one of them has a gun.
This second death, compared to Yvonne’s a chapter earlier, is a ‘dingy’ affair. The consul seems to hope that he can influence events by naming and somehow defining the weapon – it’s a Colt .17 – but the shots come anyway. And the hallucinatory fall into an existential abyss we’ve become all too familiar with turns out not to be a hallucination at all. Its actuality is confirmed by what must be one of the dingiest final lines in any novel, one that I remember from all those years ago: ‘Somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine.’ So it goes.