Tag Archives: Malcolm Lowry

The talking dead

Traditional grave-side offerings--cigarettes, decorated bread, fruit, beer and mescal--in Oaxaca. Phot credit: T. Gething

Traditional Day of the Dead graveside offerings in Oaxaca: cigarettes, tortillas, mole, decorated bread, fruit, beer and, of course, mescal.
Photo credit: T. Gething

Yesterday marked the end of los Días de los Muertos—the Days of the Dead—that syncretic Mexican celebration of Mesoamerican and Catholic beliefs encompassing Halloween, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. During this time Mexican families traditionally clean up and adorn the graves of their relatives, then spend a night of vigil, eating and drinking, singing and playing music, praying for and remembering the deceased.

Two great novels capture the mood of this annual event. One is Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, which takes place on November 2, 1938. It’s a masterpiece for many reasons, not least for its atmospheric descriptions of this largely indigenous celebration.

38787The other book isn’t directly linked to the Day of the Dead but might as well be. It’s Juan Rulfo’s enigmatic masterpiece, Pedro Páramo. I spent part of yesterday rereading this little gem, a novella of less than 50,000 words that is perhaps the greatest and most influential Mexican fiction yet written.

This is the fourth time I’ve read it—twice in a translation by Lysander Kemp, once in the original Spanish, and now in a newer and more faithful translation by Margaret Sayers Peden. The first time I read it during the graveyard shift while working as a security guard at the university library in Tucson forty years ago. I remember being transfixed by the spare, poetic magic of Rulfo’s prose. I am still spellbound by it.

Juan Rulfo

Juan Rulfo

Rulfo published only two slim books in his lifetime, a collection of stories, El llano en llamas (The Burning Plain and Other Stories) and Pedro Páramo. The former was published in 1953 and the latter in 1955. Rulfo spent much of his career as a traveling tire salesman and pursued another artistic passion, photography, as he made sales trips around the country. Although there were rumors he was working on another novel, La Cordillera, he revealed shortly before his death in 1986 that he had destroyed his work in progress.

According to Susan Sontag who wrote the introduction to the most recent English edition, Rulfo once said: “In my life there are many silences. In my writing, too.”

That statement summarizes the mystery of his writing, but it hardly explains how he accomplished it. Rulfo’s prose is inimitable and perfect, whether he was writing about illiterate adulterers who have murdered her husband and are obsessed by their sin, as in the haunting story “Talpa,” or about desperate revolutionaries ambushed in a canyon, as in “The Burning Plain.” Rulfo’s economy with dialogue and narrative exposition, his use of non-chronological sequences and time shifts add a strange intensity to his writing; his prose burns with unspoken emotion. (Not surprisingly, his black-and-white photographs express the same silences and economies, as if they were renderings of his books in images.)

Juan Rulfo's photography mimics the spare stark style of his fiction. Published by the Smithsonian Institute

Juan Rulfo’s photography mirrors the spare, stark form of his fiction. Published by Smithsonian Books (2002).

Here’s an example of Rulfo’s prose from the early pages of Pedro Páramo, but really any section of the book matches it in tone:

It was during the dog days, the season when the August wind blows hot, venomous with the rotten stench of saponaria blossoms.

The road rose and fell. It rises or falls depending on whether you’re coming or going. If you are leaving, it’s uphill; but as you arrive it’s downhill.

“What did you say that town down there is called?”

“Comala, señor.”

“You’re sure that’s Comala?”

“I’m sure, señor.”

“It’s a sorry-looking place, what happened to it?”

“It’s the times, señor.”

Pedro Páramo is considered a precursor of magical realism; Gabriel García Márquez admired it so much he memorized entire passages. But the novel has more kinship with surrealism than magical realism.

Simply stated, it is the story of Juan Preciado, a young man who goes to Comala, the village of his dead mother, in search of his father, Pedro Páramo. At least that’s how it begins, but soon you realize nothing is quite normal. Pedro Páramo, Preciado learns, is long dead. The town is deserted and voices of the dead fill his ears. The story jumps in time and point of view, from the first person to the third, numerous times. Soon you wonder if everyone isn’t dead, including Preciado, and if these aren’t voices from a horrible past unburdening themselves of their losses and the grief caused by their cruel patrón. Pedro Páramo owned all the land around, controlling and abusing the people subsisting underneath him, taking what he wanted—land, men’s lives, other men’s wives—as he pleased.

Rulfo tapped a deep vein of Mexican experience in his indictment of the greedy landowners who used the turmoil of the revolution to their advantage, behaving like feudal lords in their own isolated worlds. The poor, the illiterate, the weak suffered at their hands, living in terror, haunted by violent death—it is a fatalistic, distinctly Mexican vision that resonates across time and place. For what is the difference between Pedro Páramo and the Mexican drug lords of today who use corruption and intimidation to control their turf? And, as the unearthed mass graves reveal, what awaits those who must live with such terror but death and decay?

Rulfo wrote about another time, about a poor, superstitious and oppressed Mexico devastated by lawlessness from years of revolution and brigandage, but it could be now, and it could be many places.

Photo credit: T. Gething

La Catrina as a sand drawing—here today, gone tomorrow. Photo credit: T. Gething



Filed under Books, Quotes, Reviews

A pot of tea and Malcolm Lowry

In Seattle the leaves are turning. The big-leaf maples blaze in fiery tones and the alders, parched from a long dry summer, blanch from the cooler nights. In the Cascades the huckleberries rage crimson and the larches glow golden. Leaves litter the trails and swish underfoot.


First edition, 1961.

This time of year I like to brew up a strong pot of tea and turn to one of my favorite authors, Malcolm Lowry. Specifically, to one of his finest works, the novella The Forest Path to the Spring. Published in the posthumous story collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Lowry’s pastoral is full of lyrical language, classical allusions and keen observations on nature and self.

The plot is minimal, arising from Lowry’s life as a squatter in a shack on the Burrard Inlet, in Dollarton, near Vancouver, British Columbia. Lowry and his wife spent fourteen years there while he wrote his masterpiece, Under the Volcano. For Lowry, Dollarton represented paradise on earth, a place of bliss and creativity. His love for it shines throughout this quiet, mature work.

If Under the Volcano is Lowry’s Inferno, The Forest Path to the Spring is his Paradiso. In fact, Lowry envisioned a series of six or seven novels titled The Voyage that Never Ends, and planned to use The Forest Path to the Spring as its coda. Except for this little gem and Under the Volcano, the grand opus remained a pile of rough drafts and loose notes at the time of his death in 1957.

Lowry describes a collection of Manx, Norwegian and Danish fisherman, Scottish boat builders and other odd fellows who lived independent and very private lives in their squatters’ shacks, yet who formed a close-knit community that shared its bounty and discreetly watched out for one another. Each day the novella’s first-person narrator goes to a spring in the woods for water. In Lowry’s hands, the walk and the spring become metaphorical; the novella is about overcoming fear, resisting the intrusion of the past, and tuning out the noise of civilization to achieve happiness.

Here is Lowry’s lovely opening:

At dusk, every evening, I used to go through the forest to the spring for water.

The way that led to the spring from our cabin was a path wandering along the bank of the inlet through snowberry and thimbleberry and shallon bushes, with the sea below you on the right, and the shingled roofs of the houses, all built down on the beach beneath the little crescent of the bay.

Far aloft gently swayed the mastheads of the trees: pines, maples, cedars, hemlocks, alders. Much of this was second growth but some of the pines were gigantic. The forest had been logged from time to time, though the slash the loggers left behind was soon obliterated by the young birch and vines growing up quickly.

Beyond, going toward the spring through the trees, range beyond celestial range, crowded the mountains, snow-peaked for most of the year. At dusk they were violet, and frequently they looked on fire, the white fire of the mist. Sometimes in the early mornings this mist looked like a huge family wash, the property of Titans, hanging out to dry between the folds of their lower hills. At other times all was chaos, and Valkyries of storm-drift drove across them out of the ever reclouding heavens.

Often all you could see in the whole world of the dawn was a huge sun with two pines silhouetted in it, like a great blaze behind a Gothic cathedral. And at night the same pines would write a Chinese poem on the moon. Wolves howled from the mountains. On the path to the spring the mountains appeared and disappeared through the trees.

He continues to layer image upon poetic image, with metaphors changing shape and meaning like the mist in the mountains.

Malcolm Lowry, bottle of gin and a book in hand, in front of his shack at Dollarton.

A happy Malcolm Lowry, bottle of gin and book in hand, in front of his shack at Dollarton.

More often than not, Lowry’s febrile imagination and unquenchable alcoholism fed a delirious paranoia and self-destructive tendencies, which he captured brilliantly in Under the Volcano. In that novel, as in this novella, Dollarton represented a safe harbor, an idyllic place that could not possibly survive except in dream or memory. The squatters’ eviction in 1954 to make way for a suburban park became for Lowry an eviction from Eden, and an obsession. Though eviction had always been a theme, his writing now took on a more strident ecological protest, unusual in its day, as civilization encroached upon his piece of wilderness. From the moment of his eviction to his premature death at the age of 47 in Ripe, England, he never felt at home again.

The Forest Path to the Spring is Lowry’s testament of longing for a place and a peace of mind that he lost. It is beautiful in its affirmations. It should have a greater stature in the English-language canon than it does, and it should be read by more people than it is. Ideally, in autumn, with a fresh pot of tea.


Filed under Excerpts, Reviews