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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

¿LE GUSTA ESTE JARDIN?*

¿QUE ES SUYO?

¿EVITE QUE SUS HIJOS LO DESTRUYAN!

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 socks on his nephritic feet. His penis cannot stand, and he likewise falls down in the street.

The drunk returns to childhood—in this case, babyboyhood. Innocence reclaims him. Since there is no o’clock in a cantina, he escapes his age. Lowry, like the Consul, drank himself back through his life: from the squatter he became, the failure he was, the writer, sailor, talker, Cantabrigian and momentary master of the uke, the unwilling English public schoolboy he had been, to that rich man’s fourth and quite unnecessary son where he began; not quite to recover the past, part of which was painful as a burn, but to go over it again and get it right, and to reach the desired condition of helplessness. The alcoholic trance is not just a haze, as though the eyes were also unshaven. It is not a mere buzzing in the ears, a dizziness or disturbance of balance. One arrives in the garden again, at nursery time, when the gentle animals are fed and in all the world there are only toys.

In such a state, like Lear’s fool, he has a license to speak the truth, let impulse loose, and not be blamed. He can lie, too, and not be blamed. He can play, can act—playact—and not be blamed. He is excused. Unable to fend—to eat, to dress, conduct affairs—unable to fuck: he is excused. If pleased, he laughs; if offended, he sulks; if disappointed, he throws himself wailing on the world like a mourner on a grave. Of course, he’ll be accused of being intoxicated, and of that charge it is absolutely necessary for him to be guilty, but he can’t be blamed for being impotent or ugly, for failing to face up, for losing heart or job or love or money, for fecklessness, for rage: that is the main thing, and he will happily accept this lesser charge in the place of all the others, since it is also true that he is, in the moment of deepest fuddle, mad, inhabited, possessed of prophetic powers, so perfectamente borracho that like the most naïve children of Christ, the fools of God, he makes with his dirty lying toper’s tongue the inspired speech of the Spirit, and on that ground, too, he is excused…excused.

Let out. Let off. Excused. Not for long, though. Not for nearly long enough. Eventually the body fails. The chemical has forced it to concoct a consciousness it cannot care for or continue; it cannot support this basin of puke or endure the ringing of these poisonous bells, the reverberations of their stink. Frequently the victim sweats his pits sore as pain passes away through the pores, and the steel shutters of the cantina come down with a crash. Later, though not enough later, not an eternity after, after only a drugged snooze, the drinker awakes with a conscience ready to be reconsumed, and to a sort of soberness so physically wretched and an awareness so vengeful and spiritually cruel, that another species of hallucination takes possession of him. Kafka could not describe the transformations, or Sabbatai Zevi account for them. Thus rubbed from a bottle, the day begins again, even though it’s the moon that’s up, and consciousness must reinvent the world.

The cantina is not, then, a complete calamity: it calms, it protects, it restores. It is the head itself, the container of consciousness, and the bar which bisects it is the bar of judgment, where cases are argued; and in the cantina everything is beautiful, even when ugly: everything is significant, even when trivial; all is orderly, even when the drinker is deranged; all is known; and even if there are headaches and the eyes fall back in their sockets like stones; even if the saloon pitches like a ship in a storm; even if every word is a groan and sickness begs the stomach for something to flush through its throat the way turds whirl in a toilet, there is always tomorrow; there is always the hope of change, the fresh resolution, and the drink to celebrate it, for didn’t I just say that the container of consciousness was the brown pint, the clear quart, and haven’t whole cultures worshiped the spirit in the plant, the pulque which preserves, the life in the vine? because wine winters over in the vats, it defies time; and where better to celebrate this miracle than in the cantina? although it may be a morning so awash with moonlight the sidewalks are urine yellow, never mind, we have come round, we rebegin; let’s pawn, let’s drink, the clock, and have another round, a tick, another round, a tock, another round.

But you see that we do not really lose our grip, we do not really repeat as if we’ve forgotten already what we’ve said, it is just that some of our commonest connectives have come undone, we swing back and forth into our thought now like a ball on the end of a string, the body must stumble so the mind may leap, or rather perhaps it would be better to say that we sink down softly into things as though they were laps.

Some matters after all are magnified without alcohol and in the ordinary course of events for example when the sun falls asleep at midday there is a frightful darkness like Guinness in a glass and the bar mirror smears and the bar stool turns of itself with a squeak and we are free finally to let the mind pass into the space of its speaking, mescaleening, you might say, as over water water-skiers—such is the kind of excuse we’re seeking when we flip or twist or pull or pry or pop or tap the keg or cork or lid or cap or top—go like spray.

What do you have against me in your files, Lowry asks the sub-chief of Migración. The sub-chief slaps the folder facing him: “Borracho, borracho, borracho. Here is your life.”

Nightmare and madness fly up and down like shades. Figures emerge from the walls: customs officials, pimps, bus drivers, wives, police. Fear grows the wings of evil birds. What is this semen which runs from our nose? this hot blot on the bedclothes? loaf of red bread? There’s a nest of noisy ants in that canister of candy. Anxiety like light leaks—pip—from a pipe. Pip-a-dip. Pip. Flowers flattened in the paper puff like adders, but they’re orchid-mouthed, and at last we have someone to talk to, someone who understands the initial pronoun of our speech the way a fine sentence does the design of its writer.

It is ourselves, of course, or one member of that club, with whom we take communion in the cantina (part of us taking your part, perhaps, and playing it better, too, but remaining one of our own crowd still, leaning alone like a broom in a closet, apart from the pail and the mop as we must, because in this spiritless realm of matter, like a bar without booze, no cozy interpretation of molecules is possible), and Lowry would hold extended conversations with empty corners and vacant chairs, but what is remarkable about that? each of us has seen street-talkers deep in quarrel with invisible companions; or he would, having passed out, nevertheless remember what had been said in the presence of his absent self, so one wonders if he might sometimes have been faking, but there is a fragment of us constantly awake, alert as a lantern, microphone: why should our ear sleep when our eyes close? pip! like insects we breathe with more than our nose; it is simply that the division which occurs when we’ve taken a sufficiently engrossing drink is almost complete, and we meet all elements as equals: the glass that holds the hand, the hand that is a bottle to the body, the body that wickedly wobbles the world, and the mirror which imagines this immense earth-quaking to be merely the sea-crossing of a cloud.

El espíritu
Es una invención del cuerpo
El cuerpo
Es una invención del mundo
El mundo
Es una invención del espíritu
—Octavio Paz, Blanco

In any case it becomes absolutamente necesario to have a drink. Easy for anyone whose entire intelligence and whose whole energy is bent upon it, because naturally the need has been foreseen and there is a bottle stashed under the sink or buried in the window box or hidden in the clothes hamper, and on the bad odd off chance that they have been emptied already, one mustn’t lose faith, heart, or hope, because there are other opportunities, some bars open early, there are friends…yes, con permiso, just a nip to steady the nerves, calm the stomach, dispel the demons, only a drop, amigos, a spot, a touch, and in addition….

There is a cantina at every corner of the Consul’s world. Sin and innocence, guilt and salvation, shape Lowry’s private square of opposition, and if sanctuary and special knowledge are its gifts in one guise, and gaiety and relaxation its gifts in another, cater-corner from church and gym are brothel and prison. Here men are fastened to themselves as though they were both shackle and chain, their eyes on images: above the bar to advertise Cafeaspirina a woman wearing a scarlet brassiere is depicted reclining on a scrolled divan. Outside the cantina you can see the mountain, alongside runs a deep ravine. Symbols, surely, but remote and close, steep and frightening, just the same. El Farolito, with its diminishing inner rooms, the nesting inner-cubes of Hell, is the last cantina, sitting in the shadow of Popocateptl as though under that volcano. There the Consul will wad himself into a slut the way we wedge with cardboard a skinny candle in its holder. There he will be mistaken for an anarchist, a Jew, a thief, a spy. There he will be murdered by backwoodsy fascists. Who has a hand upon his penis now?

Wrider? you antichrista. Sí, you
antichrista prik…
And Juden…

Chingar…

Cabrón
…You are no a de
wrider, you are de espider, and
we shoota de espiders
in Mexico…
You no wrider…

You Al Capón. You a
Jew chingao…
You are a spider.

In the road in front of El Farolito the Consul is shot with a Colt ’17. “Christ, what a dingy way to die,” the Consul says, but that is merely his opinion. His body is thrown into a barranca, pariah dog tossed after him. Despite the fact that the scene is excessively operatic and the writing wails like an endlessly expiring soprano, there is no death in recent literature with more significance.

(This is the first part of a two-part article on Malcolm Lowry.)

  1. *

    Do you enjoy this garden, which is yours? Keep your children from destroying it.