Oaxaca in Vancouver

Dia de Muertos 2016, Vancouver, BC

There’s a great deal of mescal in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. As the author’s drunken, guilt-ridden alter-ego Geoffrey Firmin descends into a “mescal-inspired phantasmagoria,”* mentions of the drink accumulate, totaling more than 50 by the book’s end. Meanwhile, its role in the plot intensifies; tellingly, mescal is the first word of the final chapter, as Firmin orders yet another drink from the bar. ‘“Mescal,” said the Consul,”’ begins Chapter 12, an incipit as blunt and ominous as the novel’s opening words in the 1940 manuscript, “It was the Day of the Dead.”

To contemporary Anglophone ears, these references to a dangerous, sinister liquor may have an odd ring, as mescal is no longer the alien drink it was to Lowry’s early readership. Over the past decade, distribution and sales of the liquor outside Mexico have dramatically increased, especially in the United States. Mescal is now available not only in the US border states but in Chicago, New York and New England; well north of California in Washington State it can be found in mass-market liquor stores. The liquor is popular in mixed drinks, but mescal also includes many top-shelf brands that rival fine scotch. As mescal grows in popularity its distribution range will no doubt keep expanding, but the drink’s apotheosis was arguably reached a few years ago when it ultimately crossed the border into Canada and arrived in liquor stores and restaurants in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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Malcolm Lowry, Dollarton, 1953

It was in Vancouver, after all, that Lowry revised and rewrote Under the Volcano, having made his way north in penury and disarray after a tumultuous sojourn in Mexico, the direct inspiration for his harrowing novel. Lowry brought with him to Vancouver a narrative vision of personal hell and he used the Oaxacan liquor as a potent metaphor of poisoned temptation. It would be hard to gauge the impact of Lowry’s dark vision on the drink’s subsequent fortunes, but seventy years after his book’s publication, mescal’s long eclipse has finally come to an end. In 2013 a mescaleria opened for business in trendy, gentrifying East Vancouver, with a menu of higher-end Mexican staples and a large selection of mescals to wash them down. Since then, taquerias and Mexican restaurants have proliferated around Vancouver and mescal is sold in restaurants and bars of all kinds. One can even find mescal on the shelves of the BC Liquor Store in North Vancouver’s suburb of Dollarton, a stone’s throw from where Lowry and his second wife, Margerie Bonner, moved into a humble waterfront shack on Burrard Inlet in 1940.

The publication last year of an annotated edition of the 1940 Volcano manuscript allows us to delve more deeply into the sources of the 1947 novel and to assess the changes Lowry and Margerie Bonner made to the text during their stay in Vancouver. Interestingly, mescal has only thirteen mentions in the 1940 manuscript; the emphasis on mescal and its purportedly dangerous qualities in the published novel were developed in the course of revisions in Vancouver. The text establishes a contrast between wine and beer, on the one hand, and liquor on the other. “The dichotomy is clear: tequila and mescal would be the beginning of the end” for the Consul (333). A second contrast opposes tequila and mescal: “a contrast between tequila and mescal is maintained, with mescal the more deadly” (363). Forty-odd added mentions of mescal reinforce the theme in the novel as published. However, Lowry’s recollections in Dark as the Grave insist on no symbolic distinction: “His memories were all of suffering, hideous anxiety, or the escape from, or more powerfully into, these through tequila or mescal.”** Frederick Asals confirms as much: “The drink has no special significance in the 1940 version” of Volcano.***

In the title piece of his collection of essays Fiction and the Figures of Life, William H. Gass leans heavily on Lowry’s novel to argue that literary language is an “abstract system,” autonomous and non-referential, however much it may seem to index the real world.**** Under the Volcano is a willfully contentious choice for Gass’s argument, as the novel’s meticulous orchestral structure of recurring images and symbols is matched by its equally detailed rendering of the protagonist’s anxious, compulsive experience. Like all idealist formalisms, Gass’s claims cannot do without their sacrificial violence; here the victim of the critic’s “abstract system” is the real-life novelist, “that poor wretch Malcolm Lowry” (59), “who rounded the world as a sailor, wrote a few strange stories, was twice married, and, perfectamente borracho, choked to death on his own vomit” (57). We need not be naïve literalists to object to Gass’s neat separation of Volcano‘s formal beauty from such crude reality. Moreover, the image conjured by the critic of Lowry’s miserable drunken end is inescapably full of judgment and meaning, even if it doesn’t move us to the simple, symbolic pieties Gass ridicules, such as “the fall of man” or “the foolish frailties of flesh” (70).

At the opposite pole of Gass’s cold formalism is the fond attachment of Lowry’s biographers and admirers  to the facts of the man’s life, particularly in Vancouver, which houses the author’s archive and is the site of annual literary commemorations. The 1940 manuscript clearly shows how much the book published in 1947 owes to Lowry’s 15-year Vancouver sojourn. But Under the Volcano was neither begun nor, strictly speaking, completed in Vancouver. And if, as Sheryl Salloum amply documents, Lowry found much joy, productivity and security in Vancouver, from 1946 on he lived under the constant threat of eviction from suburban developers, small-minded neighbors and municipal authorities.***** Vancouver cannot claim Lowry without owning its inhospitality.

Mescal never killed Lowry. Neither, arguably, did the bottle of gin he drank the night he died in England in 1957. Lowry died of heartbreak and despair at having lost a life he felt was idyllic in his modest waterfront shack in Dollarton, less than three years after his last eviction notice. As we celebrate the Day of the Dead this year in Vancouver, we can raise a glass of mescal to Malcolm Lowry, remembering him not as a local treasure and a source of civic pride, but as a literary wanderer, a man evicted and a homeless ghost.

A haunting passage in Under the Volcano anticipates this homelessness and nostalgia when the lovelorn Consul, drunk in Oaxaca, pens a letter that describes Dollarton as a peaceful idyll at the end of a path through hell:

I seem to see now, between two mescals, this path, and beyond it strange vistas, like visions of a new life together we might somewhere lead. I seem to see us living in some northern country, of mountains and hills and blue water; our house is built on an inlet and one evening we are standing, happy in one another, on the balcony of this house, looking over the water (36-7).

* The 1940 Under the Volcano: A Critical Edition, Miguel Mota and Paul Tiessen, eds. (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2015), lx.

**Malcolm Lowry, Dark as the Grave Wherein my Friend is Laid, (Toronto: General Publishing, 1968), 83.

*** Frederick Asals, The Making of  Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1997), 392.

****William H. Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life (Boston: Nonpareil Books, 1980), 63.

***** See Sheryl Salloum, Malcolm Lowry: Vancouver Days (Madeira Park, BC: Harbor Publishing, 1987).

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