On the one hand the writer is at pains to create an environment in time and space which will provide the fictional action with a necessary dimensionality and which will convince the reader that he is confronting a world that is, in some sense, real and meaningful. Yet at the same time, even if there is an overt identification of the setting with an actual place such as London or Hannibal or Tabasco, the writer will probably not wish to depend so heavily or exclusively on a literal verisimilitude that the reader expects to find-at the "correct" address-a municipal garden with all the streaks of the tulips therein numbered accurately. Instead the writer generally seeks a means by which he may exercise his prerogative to heighten reality where necessary in order to accommodate his imaginative vision while also satisfying in some manner the reader's instinctive desire for an intelligible orientation to the fictive world. Thus we find William Faulkner creating his own mythical kingdom complete with map and dates and social groupings; or D. H. Lawrence pitting the prosaic activities of the Mexico City drawing-room society against the ceremonials of the visionary company of Quetzalcoatl; or Graham Greene reconstructing the terrain and the boundaries of his "godless state" in southern Mexico, and synecdochizing the quality of life there by frequent references to various kinds of scavengers. The paradoxical elements of place in fiction may be seen in perhaps their most extreme form in Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano (1947). In the justly celebrated letter to his English publisher Jonathan Cape [see excerpt in TCLC, Vol. 6, pp. 235-6] Lowry described his choice of setting for the novel as follows. The scene is Mexico, the meeting place, according to some, of mankind itself, pyre of Bierce and springboard of Hart Crane, the age-old arena of racial and political conflicts of every nature, and where a colorful native people of genius have a religion that we can roughly describe as one of death, so that it is a good place, at least as good as Lancashire, or Yorkshire, to set our drama of a man's struggle between the powers of darkness and light. Its geographical remoteness from us, as well as the closeness of its problems to our own, will assist the tragedy each in its own way. We can see it as the world itself, or the Garden of Eden, or both at once. Or we can see it as a kind of timeless symbol of the world on which we can place the Garden of Eden, the Tower of Babel and indeed anything else we please. It is paradisal: it is unquestionably infernal. It is, in fact, Mexico. ... Lowry's Mexico, then, is intended to be both the Mexico of history, where one can still find cantinas and cockroaches and the religion of death, and a land that lends itself with relative ease to the symbol-making eye of the imaginative observer. In choosing to view Mexico as both paradisal and infernal, Lowry lays claim to the same mythopoetical construct as Lawrence and Greene had before him. And his readiness to emphasize "unquestionably" the primacy of the infernal divulges which side of the duality has the greater hold on his imagination. Critics have been sharply divided, however, over the degree of Lowry's success in Under the Volcano in rendering a locale that "is, in fact, Mexico." George Woodcock has asserted that the novel is "influenced and even dominated by the peculiar nature of Mexican existence." But the novelist William Gass goes to the opposite extreme in his observation that Lowry is "constructing a place, not describing one; he is making a Mexico for the mind where, strictly speaking, there are no menacing volcanoes, only menacing phrases. . . ." [see excerpt in TCLC Vol. 6, p. 244.] Lowry's biographer Douglas Day lends support to Gass's views when he contends that the Mexican setting of Under the Volcano is only an "accident of geography," that Lowry's fictional world is dominated by a landscape which is strictly within. Day believes that "like most visionary artists" Lowry was acutely egocentric: his gaze was almost always inward, so much so that he was very nearly blind to the world outside-except in so far as it reflected his own thoughts and feelings. From time to time he would try mightily to focus on something outside himself-the world situation, friends, wives, the sound of a voice, the color of a sky-and hope that alcohol would help him get through such adventures. But, of course, it only helped him back inside himself, where an elusive inner Malcolm Lowry alternately laughed at and sorrowed with his brilliant, incompetent outer self. Such a man could write only about himself, which is precisely what Lowry did. It would be a cliche to say that he wrote "thinly veiled autobiographies"; but it would be the truth. Certainly there is much validity in Day's observations. Lowry was obviously a solipsistic writer given, with increasing frequency in later years, to observing himself in the act of observing himself. However, so far as Under the Volcano is concerned, it is a serious misjudgment to dismiss the choice of the Mexican setting as a mere accident of geography. For one thing, the visionary in Lowry found in the landscape and culture of Mexico a willing accomplice for his imaginative designs-something which he did not find in Canada, his other major fictional setting. As the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes has pointed out, "the physical nature of Mexico-a cruel, devouring, sunbaked landscape-is filled with portents of magical distraction. Every force of nature seems to have a mythical equivalent in Mexico. No nation is quite so totemic. . . ." Furthermore, the euhemeristic myth of Mexico's past fostered by the Revolution-with its emphasis on the integrity of indigenous cultures, the deracination of those cultures by the conquering Europeans, and the re-conquest of the homeland by modern Revolutionists-inspired Lowry to scrutinize Mexican history in search of events, figures, and patterns which would enrich his own "drama of a man's struggle between the powers of darkness and light." That Lowry sought out those aspects of the Mexican scene which, as Day says, "reflected his own thoughts and feelings," there can be little doubt. For that matter, the same thing could be said of Lawrence, Huxley and Greene. None of the Mexican novels by these four English writers is really about Mexico, in the way that B. Traven's "jungle novels" clearly are. Rather, all four treat the ways in which their protagonists undergo a violent experience of self-revelation in a land which dramatizes and embodies their deepest anxieties and hopes in stark and elemental terms. In Mexico one encounters great extremes of various kinds existing side by side, openly, even blatantly. As Terence Wright has said, "Colourful, grotesque, savage, Mexico is a land outside the normal world, a land in which life is ‘tightened up a screw,‘ a land in which anything can happen" [see Further Reading]. In the case of Under the Volcano the particular role played by the Mexican setting is both large and varied, and it is well worth close attention. Lowry's novel takes place for the most part in a town called Quauhnahuac (according to Lowry a Nahuatl word meaning "where eagle stops," from which the Spanish name Cuernavaca derives), located in the mountains about fifty miles south of Mexico City. In the extended description which opens the Volcano Lowry tells us that Quauhnahuac is a resort town of faded grandeur, with eighteen churches, fifty-seven cantinas, 400 swimming pools and many splendid hotels. Despite such accoutrements which have attracted a considerable population of foreigners, the town maintains beneath its surface something of the dark and threatening force of indigenous Mexico, a force which, as the following passage suggests, is inimical to modern civilization: "The walls of the town, which is built on a hill, are high, the streets and lanes tortuous and broken, the roads winding. A fine Americanstyle highway leads in from the north but is lost in its narrow streets and comes out a goat track." In general, one might say that Lowry's Mexico has a similar blighting effect upon the four principal characters who incessantly wander its broken and winding paths. Indeed, before the end of the novel two of these four people meet violent deaths, so it is not without significance that the action occurs on that peculiar Mexican holiday known as the Day of the Dead. More accurately, the story encompasses one full year beginning and ending on the Day of the Dead. Chapter I is set on November 2, 1939, exactly twelve months after the events recounted in the other eleven chapters have occurred. The Day of the Dead is the Mexican version of All Soul's Day. During this fiesta in Mexico one is likely to encounter such sights as Indian women in shawls peddling flores para los muertos, ragged children playing gaily with paper skeletons suspended on a string and gorging themselves on little pieces of bread or candy shaped into human skulls, ironic verses called calaveras (literally, skulls) printed in the newspapers "eulogizing" living persons as though they were dead, processions of mourners making their way to local cemeteries to honor their departed friends and relatives-and, if one is fortunate enough to be included in a native family's festivities, one may find that the favorite meal of deceased loved ones has been prepared and an extra place set at the table. As this description suggests, for Mexicans the fiesta of los muertos is an occasion for both sadness and gaiety. Perhaps it is this combination, along with the macabre trappings it has inspired, which frequently bewilders and intimidates so many foreign visitors who behold the spectacle. The fiesta has its origins in the more harrowing deathrituals of the pre-Cortesian inhabitants of Mexico. While it is doubtful that many modern Mexicans bother to deliberate upon the more serious implications of their festival, the unabashed manner and the great popularity of the celebration do suggest that something of the ancient attitude toward death-that is, that death is a natural and positive part of the life process and is therefore to be neither ignored nor dreaded as the end of being-remains in the collective Mexican psyche. In his chapter on the Day of the Dead in The Labyrinth of Solitude, the poet Octavio Paz offers a provocative interpretation of the Mexican attitude toward death in relation to that quality of the national personality which Paz feels constricts daily life: solitude, masked by stoicism and machismo. In the century of "health, hygiene and contraceptives, miracle drugs and synthetic foods," the Mexican still maintains an intimate relation to death. He "jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love. True, there is perhaps as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: he looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony. . . ." Collectively, the Mexicans "are seduced by death. The fascination it exerts over us is the result, perhaps, of our hermit-like solitude and the fury with which we break out of it. The pressure of our vitality, which can only express itself in forms that betray it, explains the deadly nature, aggressive or suicidal, of our explosions.. . " In his only explicit commentary on these matters, Lowry's interpretation, if somewhat more affirmative, has much in common with that of Octavio Paz. Musing on the Zapotecan ruins at Monte Alban, Lowry writes: The sense of this past, of sorrow, of death: these are factors intrinsic in Mexico. Yet the [modern] Mexicans are the gayest of people, who turn every possible occasion, including the Day of the Dead, into a fiesta. The Mexicans laugh at death; that does not mean they don't take it seriously. It is perhaps only by the possession of a tragic sense of life such as theirs that joy and mirth find their place: it is an attitude that testifies to the dignity of man. Death . . . is tragic and comic at once. This ambivalent attitude informs Lowry's treatment of the theme of death in Under the Volcano, though the tragic element is clearly dominant. The novel carries an enormous load of death and dying-and even, as we shall see, love of death. The first words in the novel spoken by the protagonist, Geoffrey Firmin, are these: "‘A corpse will be transported by express!‘ " In fact, these five iambs become a major refrain in the book. Not quite so poetic, almost the last thing Geoffrey says at the end is " ‘Christ . . . this is a dingy way to die.‘ " In between these two lines there are (to mention but a few examples) a child's funeral, a hallucination of a man lying dead in a garden, references to the death and damnation of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and to the House of Usher, a cantina called La Sepultura, scorpions who sting themselves to death, vultures "who wait only for the ratification of death," a dead dog lying at the bottom of a barranca, a wounded Indian found dying by the roadside, frequent allusions to the doomed Loyalist cause in Spain ("they are losing the battle of Ebro") and visions of the worse holocaust to come. The second of November is indeed a day of the dead in Quauhnahuac-a day which fairly crepitates with dying itself in 1938 and again with the painful memory of the dead a year later. "It should not be forgotten," Lowry wrote to Jonathan Cape, "that on that day in Mexico the dead are supposed to commune with the living." As George Woodcock has aptly observed, the exaggerated Websterian violence in real life-which actually existed in Mexico until comparatively recently-provides the setting and the symbolism through which Lowry's characters and their disaster are raised out of the personal frame of their author's life and into an autonomous world where their adventures, sordid and pathetic in themselves, are realized on the level of genuine tragedy. There is more to Lowry's Mexico, however, than death and tragedy alone. True, these are the primary strains, but the pattern as a whole is considerably more complicated. Chapter I, in which Lowry attempts above all to establish the emblematic terrain of his apocalyptic drama, contains some magnificent and suggestive descriptions of the mountainous landscape around Quauhnahuacdescriptions which, due as much to the suppleness of the style as to the kinesis perceived in the landscape, cannot rightly be called set-pieces. How continually, how startlingly, the landscape changed! Now the fields were full of stones: there was a row of dead trees. An abandoned plough, silhouetted against the sky, raised its arms to heaven in mute supplication; another planet, [Jacques Laruelle] reflected again, a strange planet where, if you looked a little further, beyond the Tres Marias, you would find every sort of landscape at once, the Cotswolds, Windermere, New Hampshire, the meadows of the Eure-et-Loire, even the grey dunes of Cheshire, even the Sahara, a planet upon which, in the twinkling of an eye, you could change climates, and, if you cared to think so, in the crossing of a highway, three civilizations; but beautiful, there was no denying its beauty, fatal or cleansing as it happened to be, the beauty of the Earthly Paradise itself. With its snow-capped twin volcanoes, its lush gardens, and its thick and sprawling forests, the Mexican landscape beguiles with beauty. It seems indeed to be paradisal. But for this very reason, in Under the Volcano, the landscape ultimately emerges as a conspirator in Geoffrey Firmin's damnation. For the twisting path which carries one amidst all the apparently Edenic splendor invariably brings one to the brink of that ominous feature of the Mexican terrain which has been there all along at one's feet, waiting: [Laruelle] passed the model farm on his right, the buildings, the fields, the hills shadowy now in the swiftly gathering gloom. The Ferris wheel came into view again . . then the trees rose up over it. The road, which was terrible and full of potholes, went steeply downhill here; he was approaching the little bridge over the barranca, the deep ravine. Halfway across the bridge he stopped. . . and leaned over the parapet, looking down. It was too dark to see the bottom, but: here was finality indeed, and cleavage! Quauhnahuac was like the times in this respect, wherever you turned the abyss was waiting for you round the corner. Dormitory for vultures and city Moloch! The pattern suggested by the two passages above-the redemptive ideal dissolving into infernal reality, the lost paradise, the reversal of beatific longing or expectation-is central to the novel. Douglas Day has offered a very useful commentary on this pattern in terms of what he calls the chthonic or earthbound level of meaning, "composed of natural elements either on or beneath the earth." Day points out that though Lowry's characters frequently dream of climbing the volcanic "magic mountains," they are sooner or later confronted with what lies under the volcano: the reeking, cloacal abyss. There is much talk of seeking water, the sea, fresh streams, a clear lake, but "the only water of significance in the novel is conspicuous by its absence: the cleansing, revivifying fountain [of life]. . . . Instead of water, we have alcohol. . . ." The many gardens which exist in the novel are mostly untended, ruined, overgrown. The forest which surrounds Quauhnahuac and the village of Parian where the last two chapters take place is equated with Dante's dark wood, and the winding path running through it leads only to colossal danger. Thus the various clusters of chthonic images gradually mesh into a web of doom which entraps the characters, not despite but precisely because they aspire to impossible transcendent ideals. The imagery, says Day, is archetypally demonic in nature: that is, it employs the traditional affirmative apocalyptic images of the Mount of Perfection, the fertile valley, the cleansing stream or fountain, and the blossoming garden, but employs them in an inverted, ironic form. What had indicated fruition, now indicates sterility; what had represented cleansing, now represents corruption, and what had symbolized the soul's striving upward toward salvation, now symbolizes the descent into damnation. It is of a world turned upside down that Lowry writes. . . . It is difficult to think of another setting that could have suited Lowry's purposes in Under the Volcano as perfectly as did Mexico. (pp. 237-46) Ronald G. Walker, "The ‘Barranca’ of History: Mexico as Nexus of Doom in ‘Under the Volcano’ in his Infernal Paradise: Mexico and the Modern English Novel, University of California Press, 1978, pp. 237-80.