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Under the Volcano

yvonne hugh consul firmin

a novel by Malcolm Lowry, published in 1947. The opening sequence takes place on the Day of the Dead in November 1939, in the Mexican city of Quauhnahuac. Jacques Laruelle, a French expatriate film-maker, reflects on the tragic events which occurred exactly a year before, in the same place, in which the main protagonists were Geoffrey Firmin, former British Consul in Quauhnahuac, his estranged wife, Yvonne, and Firmin's half-brother, Hugh. The narrative involves numerous flashbacks and shifts of viewpoint. Yvonne, who has been away for a year, following the breakdown of her marriage to the Consul, returns with the intention of giving her husband another chance. She finds him recovering from the previous night's alcoholic excesses. The couple establish an uneasy rapport, and it becomes apparent that they still love one another, but this is upset with the arrival of Hugh. Firmin starts drinking heavily and the situation deteriorates further when Firmin, Yvonne, and Hugh are invited for drinks at Laruelle's house, and the Consul is confronted with the unpleasant recollection of Yvonne and Laruelle's brief affair, also a factor in their estrangement. An excursion is proposed to a nearby village, where a carnival is in progress. The Consul becomes separated from Hugh and Yvonne; he finds solace in a drinking binge, which takes him from one sordid cantina to the next in a downward spiral that ends only when he is shot as a spy by a member of the local secret police. Meanwhile Yvonne and Hugh have become lost in the nearby forest; during a thunderstorm, Yvonne is accidentally killed by a riderless horse, terrified by the lightning. The novel is permeated with symbolism, and with allusions to Greek drama, Jacobean tragedy, and the poetry of Baudelaire and Swinburne, as well as to jazz and the cinema. The atmosphere of brooding menace is intensified by powerfully evocative descriptions of the Mexican landscape, of which the most distinctive features are the volcanoes Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl, which give the novel its name.

Under Western Eyes - English Review, North American Review, Crime and Punishment [next]

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