*Mexico. North American country whose tortured history—conquest and enslavement, revolution and unrest—serves as backdrop to the consul’s tragedy. The Mexico through which Geoffrey Firmin walks (or stumbles) is a surreal landscape of ruined gardens and stinging insects, where vultures perch in washbasins and thieves clutch bloodied coins stolen from the dead but Geoffrey recognizes it as a mirror of his private hell.
Quauhnahuac (kwah-NAH-wehk). Fictional Mexican town that is Malcolm Lowry’s nightmarish vision of Cuernavaca, a real city south of Mexico City. “Quauhnahuac” is, in fact, its original Nahuatl name, which means “among the trees.” The Nahuatl name refers to the forest that surrounds Quauhnahuac, a forest through which the characters wander in the book’s final chapter and which is linked to Dante’s dark wood. Lowry in fact conceived Under the Volcano as a part of a modern Divine Comedy he planned to write. Mexico for him was Hell, just as the northern wilds of British Columbia, Canada, dreamed of but never attained as a refuge for the consul and his wife Yvonne, was an earthly paradise.
Many landmarks in Quauhnahuac have thematic significance. Jacques Laruelle’s house, owned by Geoffrey’s friend and Yvonne’s former lover, recurs in several scenes, highlighting the consul’s fatal flaw: He cannot fully love and forgive Yvonne or himself. Another thematic marker is the cine (cinema), with a looming poster advertising a film about an artist with a murderer’s hands. The reference to murderer’s hands may point to the mysterious guilt the consul bears for a World War I incident that happened when he was an officer onboard a British ship. In that incident, German prisoners of war were said to have been burned alive in the ship’s furnaces. Jacques Laruelle, contemplating a different war, identifies the murderous hands with Germany itself. The biblical imagery of Adam and Eve exiled from the garden is clear and resonates with Geoffrey’s own fall.
Barranca. Deep cleft or ravine that runs through Quauhnahuac, encircling the city from beneath just as the volcanoes shadow it from above. While the volcanoes symbolize the “striving upward” of humanity toward the divine, the barranca is a dark abyss suggesting the entrance to Hell, a waterless River Styx. In chapter 3, Geoffrey tells Yvonne of his returning home to find their cat dead, its body thrown into the barranca, a foreshadowing of his own death, in which his body is flung down the ravine alongside the dog, which follows him like a familiar throughout the book.
Farolito. Cantina, or bar, where the consul is drawn into the fatal web of coincidence that leads to his death. “Farolito” is Spanish for lighthouse yet the bar is a dark, sordid place, and the consul is led deep into a series of ever darker rooms for his degrading encounter with the prostitute María. Here the consul finds the lost letters Yvonne has written him; here, also, he is mistaken for a spy and shot by the corrupt local police.
To understand how Lowry's novel evolved throughout a decade's constant and frustrating revisions from one addict's case history into what Philip Toynbee, coming on the book late in his career after missing it for fifteen years, calls "one of the great English novels of this century," it is necessary to leave aside alchemy and addiction, the Cabbala and black and white magicians. It is necessary even to forget Lowry's obsession that he was himself being written. For a decade during which the man knew all the miseries of Job, the artist prospered. Malcolm Lowry struggled with his book, but the struggle was as directive as a sculptor's and as strategic as a film cutter's. As his view of his material deepened, Lowry decided on a blocking-out technique, or something like it, as a way of discovering, exploring, developing his themes, of conveying their meaning, and, finally, of evaluating them. He also decided upon certain blocks...
(The entire section is 2,695 words.)