Under the Volcano is one of those books that you cannot simply read casually. It’s the kind of novel that requires you to take a short pause after each paragraph and really think about what you just read. It’s truly dense and packed to the bursting point with symbolism and hidden meaning, and if that isn’t your kind of thing, you will probably strongly dislike this book. Otherwise, you’re in for a real treat.
The book details the various activities of Geoffrey Firmin, his ex-wife Yvonne, and his half-brother Hugh, over the course of a single day, namely, the Day of the Dead, in the city of Quauhnahuac, Mexico. Each of the twelve chapters focuses on the thoughts and actions of one of the characters, and every one of them has a distinct way of thinking. The narrative is frequently sidetracked and taken on tangents by the characters thoughts. In one rather extreme example, Hugh spends almost the entire forty-page chapter lounging in a pool chair and reminiscing on his life. In that respect, Under the Volcano is very Ulysses-like, even if it is miles easier in terms of writing.
Speaking of writing, Lowry’s narrative voice is great, if at points confusing and overly complex. His writing is eloquent and often poetic. He really knows how to take the emotions and thoughts of his characters and beautifully put them to paper. That’s not to say his style isn’t very difficult to understand. Sentences are multi-layered, strangely worded and very long-winded. A basic understanding of Spanish also helps, as there is quite a bit of dialog and other phrases that require that you have at least a small grasp on the language. While I certainly don’t consider any of that a negative, it does require an extra level of concentration for pretty much the entirety of the novel. If you aren’t up for that, I wouldn’t recommend you read it.
So to conclude, this is a very intricate, powerful and thought-provoking novel. If you are willing to put in the effort to really give it a thorough reading and analysis, it’s a hugely rewarding undertaking. Malcolm Lowry has certainly written a masterpiece here, just one that not everyone will enjoy, per se. I certainly enjoyed it, and would definitely recommend it. Just know what you’re getting into.
Next Up: The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow (1953)