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This item is taken from PN Review 175, Volume 33 Number 5, May - June 2007.

In April the city of Oaxaca, after last year's civil disturbances, seemed to have erased all memory of the troubles. Oaxaca was out of bounds for months, then it was retaken from the 'insurgents' by federal troops after the contested national Presidential election. How rapidly a city can repair its surface! There were a few visible bruises from the wide-spread arson, but the flowering of graffiti had been largely painted out. The mayhem began in frustration with unre-sponsive civil authority and in a constitutional idealism endemic in the place where Benito Juárez, the great nineteenth-century reformer, was educated. As in all such situations, what began as idealistic resistance drew into its orbit ideological opportunists of various persuasions, and criminal elements.

The repaired and repainted surface, the restored colonial doziness, and the wonderful climate of Oaxaca at first masked the fact that something was very different. Many of the shops were terminally shuttered, Santo Domingo was thronged with worshippers: this was an Easter week almost entirely without foreign tourists. The American State Department re-issued its caution to travellers on 19 April 2007:

U.S. citizens traveling to Oaxaca City should be aware that from May to November 2006, protests in Oaxaca City became increasingly violent resulting in at least nine deaths. On October 27, 2006, a U.S. citizen was shot and killed in Oaxaca City as a result of the violence and disorder caused by ongoing civil unrest in the city. Many of the issues that were the basis for the protests remain unresolved. U.S. Citizens planning to travel to Oaxaca City should check on current conditions before beginning their travel.

So this Oaxaca was rather closer to the town in which D.H. Lawrence spent the winter of 1924- 5 for the sake of his lungs. The 'soft warm air' did him good. He wrote on 14 November to William Hawk, 'Every day is perfectly sunny, a bit hot at midday.' He was taken with the market (to find such a market now one must go to Tlacolula, twenty miles away, with its astonishing church and miraculous image of Christ). 'There is a big market humming like a beehive, where one can buy anything, from roses to horseshoes.' He praises the pottery, the serapes. But he is not quite comfortable. Four years after the Revolution, it is still politics that makes for his unease: 'everywhere the government is very Labour - and somehow one doesn't feel very solid. There are so many wild Indians who don't know anything about anything, except that they are told that every "rich" man is an enemy.' After the early letters he ceased to see Oaxaca. Unease made him homesick for New Mexico. He also had Dorothy Brett to deal with. In November she lost Toby, her ear-trumpet, and the local tin-smith had to make a replacement, 'shaped like a funnel: much excitement among the natives when she uses it'. More than local politics, relationships exasperated him, in particular with Brett whose demands and deafness made him edgy, and, in correspondence, he registered his qualms about Middleton Murry.

After his first wife left him, Malcolm Lowry went to Oaxaca in 1937, twenty years before his death. The fiftieth anniversary of that sad event is being marked by a general reappraisal of his writing. Lowry, like Lawrence, went to Oaxaca to try to get better. He vanished so far into his alcoholism that the city became a state of mind as much as a place. It is possible to read into his geography, and into the environs of Under the Volcano, elements of Oaxaca. There he was eventually jailed by the police and then expelled from the Republic, partly for being a drunk, partly for political reasons: he got into a fracas with a group of fascists, or they with him.

Lowry conceived Under the Volcano the year before his nightmare stay in Oaxaca. Already he was quarrying passages from his poems and from earlier prose writings to fit them into the new volume. He exaggerates and distorts, forces connections and recurrences, but he does not in general invent detail. One finds in Oaxaca as in Cuernavaca spaces, images, sounds and scents that sharply recall the novel. Later he regarded his novel as the Inferno of a projected Dantesque trilogy to be called The Voyage that Never Ends. By the time he stayed in Oaxaca he had part of a first draft - 40,000 words. He did not find it 'thorough or honest enough' and continued his labours.

He arrived in Oaxaca with Chapter VII substantially written. He drafted much more of the text, revising it later. Not being a writer to follow his story's chronology, but more a kind of restorer, piecing fragments together, he progressed crab-wise. Living up to his own expectations was the real challenge. In reading the book, we feel none of the flow, the release of energies, which writers such as Lawrence impart. Given his anarchic theme, Lowry as author needed to feel in complete control. There was a debt to Joyce: structure, precision of formal focus. Each chapter Lowry regarded as almost free-standing, a poetic construction with verbal and symbolic coherence, with a place in the narrative more geometric than dramatic.

The drunkenness of Geoffrey Firmin in the twelve hours we share with him is compounded of beer, tequila and, crucially, mescal. Mescal is the spirit of Oaxaca, elaborately refined from the maguey agave. Drinkers who overdo mescal find that as it takes hold it produces great concentration and (if the drinker is alone) extremely lucid depression, the kind that sees through actions and realises any action to be pointless: the action of not taking another gulp, for example, or of welcoming the reappearance of an estranged wife, or of defending oneself when assaulted. Passivity feels like choice, one is aware of the world in which one's refusal to act has consequences and also of the effect of one's inaction on oneself. In an unsuccessful poem Lowry includes a literal and chilling image:

                   while the very last day
As I sat bowed, frozen over mescal,
They dragged two kicking fawns through the hotel
And slit their throats, behind the barroom door...

Are these classical fauns strayed into a nightmare, or natural fawns being slaughtered for the hotel guests? The horror for the drinker, inert in his vice, is literal and figurative, and it epitomises a conflict between cultures. The image recurs in the novel. In a flashback Firmin remembers Yvonne leaving him in Mexico City. He sits in the bar of the Hotel Canada drinking iced mescal, swallowing the lemon pips, 'when suddenly a man with the look of an executioner came from the street dragging two little fawns shrieking with fright into the kitchen. And later you heard them screaming, being slaughtered probably. And you thought: better not remember what you thought.' It was on that night that he had not managed to meet Yvonne, had lost her as it seemed for good.

Following such a night, the morning after. How rapidly a city can repair its surface! A surface under which Lawrence and Lowry found something of themselves.

This item is taken from PN Review 175, Volume 33 Number 5, May - June 2007.

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