Malcolm Lowry’s Inferno

Malcolm Lowry: A Biography

by Douglas Day
Oxford University Press, 425 pp., $10.00
Malcolm Lowry
Malcolm Lowry; drawing by David Levine




There is no o’clock in a cantina. They are dim as a church is dim, often candle-lit or momentarily illuminated by sudden dusts of light from slits in dirty unscheduled walls, and there is the frequent murmur of the priests at service or the worshipers who attend even at odd hours the shrine of this or that outlandish saint—the Virgin for those who have nobody with, for instance—sanctuaries with strange yet significant names: El Bosque or the Bella Vista Bar, the Salón Ofélia, El Petate, El Farolito (Lowry once shuffled up a book of poems called The Lighthouse Invites the Storm).

Indeed one is drawn in out of the Mexican light or the English or Canadian, out of Paris, from dockside or the railroad station, out of a light like a fall of hail, in Haiti, in Vancouver, at the bus depot with its daystorms, the endless sterile walkwells of airports, neon nighttimes in New York, and there is a mirror—absolutamente necesario—behind the bar which reflects the door, a chloroformed square, the street beyond, and there are bottles which it multiplies, their labels too, like the face of the drinker, names which, on the Day of the Dead in Mexico, and the day of his own demise, Malcolm Lowry’s alcoholic hero reads as one reads scripture: Tenampa, perhaps, and Barreteago, certainly the beautiful Oaxaqueñan gourd of mescal de olla from which the same British consul’s drink is measured, a flask of peppermint cordial, Tequila Añejo, Anïs doble de Mallorca, a violet decanter of Henry Mallet’s delicioso licor, and that tall voluted column of Anïs del Mono on which a devil brandishes a pitchfork like a poster on a pillar, while in back of the bar there’s a barman called The Elephant, though in the Mexico of Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano, it may be a boy with an equally absurd name like A Few Fleas, or possibly it is a young man who is borrowing a puff of your cigarette while you stumble aloud after the slowing train of your thought; then there will usually be saucers of toothpicks laid about, salt, chiles, lemons, a tumblerful of straws, and crossed spoons in a glass tankard on the counter, or in the USA, soggy with bottle spill and the sweat of highballs, cash register receipts in a smear of purple print.

Cantina means cellar, means cave, but it sounds like a song, and it is Lowry’s favorite playground, with its teeters, slides, and roundabouts, its sandbox and its swings, although the Consul sits there like a bum on a bench, the beautiful ruin of a man, now as splendidly incompetent and out of place as a john in a junkyard. He shakes too badly to shave or to sign his name. He misplaces his Plymouth. He neglects to pull…

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