There are cities more present in the warp and weft of literature than others; that’s clear. The literary prestige of New York, Paris, or Mexico City is both undeniable and well-deserved: certain books, once read, transform forever the faces of those cities, superimposing a layer of fiction on their sidewalks and traffic signals. But there are also other less famous cities that rarely sneak into any book and, therefore, have a different and very close relationship with those few works of fiction that tell their story. Such is the case of the city in which I spent much of my childhood. With the exception of a limited number of incidental flirtations, Cuernavaca has a strictly monogamous relationship with one great twentieth-century novel: Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano.
It could be said I too maintain a monogamous relationship with Cuernavaca, as I suffered my first, failed sentimental education there and, since leaving—some years ago now—have taken on the task of constructing a personal mythology around that city, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes deliberately. I read news items about Cuernavaca with a kind of morbid fascination, I frequently dream I’m walking along the streets in the city center, and I have a strange fixation with some of the places I frequented in my youth (the Cine Morelos, where I cultivated my early cinephilia—with bats sometimes flying across the screen—or the Plazuela del Zacate, where my inclination for alcohol as the chosen weapon for self-destruction was born; or the statue of Humboldt opposite the cathedral to which I went ritualistically with a teenage girlfriend—now a performance artist—to take photos of us kissing the cheek of the Germanic explorer).
I first read Bajo el volcán about twelve years ago in the Spanish translation published in Mexico by Editorial Era. I was then living in Madrid and, not having visited my childhood home for some time, turned to that novel as a strategy for feeling closer to the mythological garden the “City of Eternal Spring” represents for me. But I have to confess that there, in Madrid, I neither understood the book nor did I fully appreciate its merits; the long sentences, sustained for whole paragraphs, were far from the sort of thing I was interested in reading in those years and, of course, I didn’t find any trace of the Proustian madeleine that would return me to the terrain of my formative years. There are books like that: books that don’t easily open themselves to those of us who still have too many illusions, but from which, if we return to them more bruised by life, a new and deeper meaning can be extracted.
A short while ago, at a writer’s residence in Hudson, New York, I found an English-language copy of Under the Volcano in the library and shamelessly stole it. I haven’t lived in Cuernavaca since I was eighteen and, during the past four years, have spent, at most, a total of two weeks there. Once again, I thought reading Under the Volcano would be useful in helping me to reappropriate my past, to return imaginatively to my home turf or, at least, to set another face of the city against the rather devastating visage churned out in the daily news. Naturally, I didn’t find exactly what I was looking for, because good books never respond to the reader’s instrumental expectations of them. The city Lowry describes no longer exists, and perhaps never fully existed (it wasn’t just by chance that Lowry used the Nahuatl place name Quauhnahuac in his novel, distancing himself from the real Cuernavaca), but in some way my reading of his novel fed my obsession for that region, activating the nostalgic free-association machine that forms the backbone of this stuttering essay.
Cuernavaca, now a city of over 300,000 inhabitants, grew by gradually engulfing the surrounding villages. After the earthquake that razed Mexico City in 1985, many residents of the capital migrated in search of less seismic ground, or less polluted air, and settled there. Given its proximity to the south of Mexico City, where the large universities are located, many academics have been moving to Cuernavaca since the ’80s. The same has occurred with a number of artists, who are able to find studios or spacious houses with good light there, or in nearby Tepoztlán, at lower prices than dwellings of the same size in artist-friendly neighborhoods in Mexico City, such as San Ángel or Coyoacán. (A key testimony to this wave of migration is Sergio Pitol’s 1989 Domar a la divina garza (Taming the divine heron), in which the law graduate Dante de Estrella, trapped in a house in Tepoztlán during a storm, embarks upon a delirious monologue about the famous, also fictional, anthropologist Marietta Karapetiz).
My father and I were part of that tide that washed up in the state of Morelos at the end of the last century, not due to the ravages of the 1985 earthquake—which caught up with us in one of the least affected zones of the Valley of Mexico—as much as to the negative effects of the capital’s air pollution on my childhood asthma.
After a few transitional months on the outskirts of the city, we installed ourselves in a small apartment in an affordable-housing project in San Miguel Acapantzingo, a neighborhood that has a starring role in Lowry’s novel: during one of Hugh and Yvonne’s first horseback rides together, just after the fundamental anagnorisis in the plot, they make out the grounds of a prison. This penitentiary is now an ecological park, and the headquarters of the Science Museum, but in 1991, when my father and I turned up in the neighborhood, it was still the edifice Lowry described in 1938, with high white walls, watchtowers, and barbed wire.
Both the prison and the Cantarranas social housing project, where we lived in the first building, had their entrances on Avenida Atlacomulco. Almost opposite my home was—and still is, as Google Maps attests—a Salvation Army hostel for orphans. Those two points, the prison and the orphanage—separated by a third of a mile—became central locations in my seven-year-old’s imagination. If the ethical atlas of my childish world could be conceived as a wind rose, the prison and the orphanage would mark the South and West cardinal points respectively. The other points of that early cosmogony would be represented by two buildings, also situated on Avenida Atlacomulco: my home (the North magnetic pole where my affective compass pointed) and my elementary school (the East of my psyche, where the sun rose each morning). The journey from the door of my apartment to the school door was exactly 189 steps (I know because, since then, 189 has reappeared again and again in my life, always as a herald: camouflaged as the ending of the phone number of a woman whose memory still pains me, or the precise amount of money stolen from me during a mugging).
As if the prison, the orphanage, my home, and my school did not provide sufficient symbolic content to mark out that childhood avenue, there is, in addition, the dark fact that it leads, a little further down, onto Avenida Díaz Ordaz, a surname my education taught me to hate and fear from a very early stage.
At the age of seven, I had a fistfight with a boy who lived, like myself, in the Cantarranas project, and left him in pretty bad shape (not so much due to my skills as a pugilist, as because, from a young age, I’ve been capable of unleashing maniacal violence in moments of mental obfuscation). My father heard about the incident that same afternoon and turned pale with shock. The family of the boy in question was affiliated to the Institutional Revolutionary Party—they were “priísta people,” as my father put it—and the fact that I had beaten up their kid didn’t augur well for us. He went so far as to ban me from leaving the house for a few days, for fear I’d suffer direct reprisals. Deeply concerned, I managed to convince myself I was at risk of being sent to the orphanage, or even the prison, there on the corner. One morning we found our car covered in dog shit, and the windows shattered; my father took that misdemeanor to be payment of the debt of vengeance and let me play outside again, since a certain balance had been reestablished in the tension between ourselves and the forces of evil, always characterized as emanations of the prevailing political system.
Yet the advanced attitudes underlying the reigning values of my school also played a dirty trick on me on more than one occasion. Being, as it was, a “progressive” school—based on Célestin Freinet’s pedagogical theories— the children were expected to propose and vote on their own legislation; that is, on the code of conduct governing, for the most part, the student body. I was the only boy in the class who wore a baseball cap, and in the second year of elementary there was a conspiracy to propose an inviolable ban on caps throughout the whole school. As with any other act of demagoguery, the motion was enthusiastically received, and was carried in a general assembly, so that I was forced to give up my proud mark of distinction, and the collection of caps I’d ambitiously amassed—with the keen collaboration of my paternal grandfather—was left to gather dust along with my collection of souvenir keychains. I cried bitterly for days—not in school, of course, where I maintained the aloof attitude of a person who has been vanquished, but is in the right. That was my first lesson in democracy, and since then I’ve always thought that system to be a plot aimed at finishing me off.
All this early psychogeography, my miniature version of the Inferno (with circles for orphans, criminals, family members, and well-intentioned teachers), gave my childhood a sinister aura I’ve perhaps learned to exaggerate through the neurotic repetition of its collection of anecdotes.
The flowers in the second stanza of The Waste Land aren’t bougainvilleas, but lilacs. Yet each time I read that stanza, or recall it (this happens a lot: it’s a verse I like even more than the celebrated first one), the image that comes to mind is bougainvilleas, those climbing plants that marked my life in Cuernavaca and which, in Lowry’s novel, are a focal point of Yvonne’s reflections.
With time, my father and I moved to a house on the outskirts of the city, more comfortable than that small apartment in the projects. A handful of streets that snaked over a hill, a church set between the first rocky outcrops of a gully: Santa María Ahuacatitlán. The town isn’t mentioned in Under the Volcano, and in fact the only literary reference to that particular toponym that I know of is in a book I highly recommend, Rubén Gallo’s Freud’s Mexico. In it, Gallo recounts the improbable but proven story of the psychoanalytic monastery that had once stood not far from the house I lived in just before coming of age. The Freudian monastery had disappeared long before my arrival in the world, but I don’t think much else has happened in Santa María Ahuacatitlán since it did. Anyway, I like to imagine there is a sort of residual psychic vibration, emanated by the psychoanalytic monastery in its moment, that is still felt in the streets of that town.
The only statesman Santa María Ahuacatitlán gave the nation was, as far as I know, a man by the name—which always seemed to me perfect—of Genovevo de la O, a hero of the Mexican Revolution, to whom the town dedicated a rather unimportant street, as wide as a bus, if that. Nowadays, when I think of Santa María— and, by association, its statesman—I cannot help but remember those brilliant lines by Gerardo Deniz: “Dying can be no stranger than being called De la O.”
The relationship that, in my experience, links Santa María to Under the Volcano is less obvious, as it is, once again, an episode in that personal anecdotery I have ended by dispatching—or distorting, depending on how you look at it—by force of too much retelling. Cuernavaca is the stage set, amply described by the narrator and crossed by the characters in the novel, but it is never quite a main character, because the indisputable protagonist is thirst; the unquenchable, bottomless thirst of the Consul, who is constantly waking from one dream to enter another, with interspersed stabs of reality, moments of sudden contact with the world, before being once more hounded by the voices populating his head, urging him to go on drinking or trying to dissuade him from doing so. His thirst is unquenchable, the narrator tells us, “Perhaps because he was drinking, not water, but certainty of brightness—how could he be drinking certainty of brightness? Certainty of brightness, promise of lightness, of light, light, light, and once again, of light, light, light, light, light.”
That thirst for light given by alcohol, and that entering and leaving of the waking dream that alcoholism can be, are the true protagonists of the novel, and Cuernavaca appears as the theater in which they deploy their arts. In the same way, Cuernavaca was also the setting for my first amateur encounters with alcohol, a drug to which I’ve consecrated a good part of my adult life. The description Lowry offers of the profound horror of the hangover, I first experienced for myself, with absolute intensity, one Sunday morning in Santa María Ahuacatitlán. I would have been fourteen or fifteen at the time, and had drunk several cans of New Mix—a disgusting canned combination of tequila and fruit soda—the night before. My father had come to pick me up from a party at around one in the morning, and had spent ten minutes looking for me until he found out—from an intimidated friend—I was in one of the bedrooms, entwined with a girl in a never-ending, slobbery kiss, with the sweet aftertaste of the New Mix uniting our tongues in adolescent enthusiasm.
My father dragged me to the car, and then into the house, and I awoke, amid the early morning noises, to a cruel, thumping hangover—my first. I left my room, staggering with pain, one hand containing, rather than holding, my head, as if my brains were on the point of emptying out through one of the pores in my forehead. My father welcomed me to the land of the living with an admonishment and a chore: as punishment for my behavior the previous night, I had to wash the car. Under the scorching Cuernavaca sun, the Sunday sun falling like lead on the gray Tsuru, I completed my mission, whining like a dog, only to then pass out on the lawn, suffering from my hangover’s thirst for light.
But a hangover is not only that. During my best ones, I reach the point of feeling myself invaded by a kind of consciousness of the sacredness of my own body, in the sense that one imagines a certain cow might be sacred in an Indian village. A swaying gin-and-tonic hangover, not too sharp, is practically a mode of meditation, with that fragile lucidity it occasionally brings with it.
The opening of Under the Volcano is a scene all those who have read the novel like to recall: the conversation between Dr. Arturo Díaz Vigil and M. Laruelle in the famous Casino de la Selva, which housed murals by David Siqueiros and Josep Renau, to name a few. It was a hotel with tennis courts, terraces, and ancient, thick-girthed trees, from which the cawing of rooks filled the air in the evenings. All this is now an enormous shopping mall, located, with perfect contiguity, between two other shopping malls. For the sake of appearances, there is also a museum, but everyone knows it is just one more section of the mall, like the fast-food court and the Cineplex. When the hotel was to be demolished and the trees cut down, many local citizens protested and occupied the hillside to prevent the equipment from entering. Some of those people were former schoolmates of mine, and I know that at least one of them ended up in prison for a couple of days due to his conservationist zeal.
I’ve made a few calculations (not particularly reliable, I should add) about which parts of the old Casino de la Selva were where and, from what I’ve been able to deduce, that first scene in Lowry’s novel must have taken place (in the strange way we say certain things take place in fiction) in what is now the meat section of Costco. That is to say, perhaps Lowry, while a guest at the Casino de la Selva, stood in the exact place where now they sell pork rinds by the pound.
Cuernavaca is a city of many gardens; or rather, a city in which economic disparity allows for the coexistence of residential areas with gardens and swimming pools, and poor neighborhoods that suffer water shortages. In Under the Volcano, the Consul’s neglected garden, a public sign of his alcoholism, allows the character a moment of impassioned, edenic reflection in the fifth chapter. In that reflection, Lowry manages to entwine biblical references with echoes of a more secular voice: the secular Voltaire and his “Il faut cultiver son jardin.” It occurs to the Consul to argue, during the course of a conversation with his neighbor about gardens, that the true original sin for which Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise was the invention of private property (a concept to which, ironically, the hypertrophic temple that is Costco was erected, on the ruins of the old Casino).
My father and I had been in Cuernavaca for some time when my mother came to live there at the turn of the century. The house she moved into is perhaps, of the various places I inhabited during my peregrination through the city, the one most clearly evoked in my rereading of Lowry, given that it was built shortly after that novel’s publication, in the 1940s. It had belonged to María Asúnsolo, a social activist, gallery owner, and model from the era of muralism, who had sat for Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and a number of other painters of the period. There is a full-length portrait by Manuel Álvarez Bravo that shows her lying on one side on a couch, in a pose vaguely reminiscent of Goya’s Majas, but much more comfortable. The light falls on her right flank in such a way that her white skirt and blouse look like marble. I have no idea where the photograph was taken—the framing doesn’t allow for much context—but I like to speculate on the—somewhat nonsensical—possibility that Álvarez Bravo took his shot in what is now my mother’s house.
María Asúnsolo retired to this house, very near the Casino de la Selva, these days an enormous supermarket, in the meat section of which the phantasmal Malcolm Lowry is, at this precise moment, drinking a mescal. It is still rumored that she practiced nudism in this garden—by the pool, to the scandal and secret delight of the neighbors—to the end of her almost hundred years of life. She had an important collection of paintings and sculptures by Mexican artists that she bequeathed to the National Art Museum. To the Mexican National Library she left the many books bearing her name, and around a thousand other volumes belonging to the last of her three husbands.
Asúnsolo died there, in that house, probably in the bedroom that is now my mother’s. In addition to the main garden, which runs from the porch to a stone wall, there is a small interior garden, with some chili plants and tiny, flute-shaped flowers. In this garden, Señora Asúnsolo kept two iguanas of respectable size and even more respectable age that were still moving around extremely slowly in the sun when my mother, brother, and I arrived in the old house, a little after Asúnsolo’s death.
Of all the portraits by David Alfaro Siqueiros for which she sat, perhaps the best known is Portrait of María Asúnsolo Descending a Staircase, made in 1935. In it, she looks expectantly toward the left of the canvas, while gathering up the skirt of her dress in her right hand, and descending the last steps of a series that disappears behind her into the shadows. Given the red walls and the sulfurous atmosphere, rather than the staircase of a house, it seems, in Siqueiros’s portrait, as if María Asúnsolo is descending into the underworld—into her own Cuernavacan Inferno, maybe as dark as Lowry’s.
But there is one portrait of María Asúnsolo I like better. It was painted by Jesús Guerrero Galván a year before Siqueiros’s, in 1934. Only the face, long neck, and chest of the still-young Asúnsolo can be seen. Here, her expression is one of near disillusion, as if she is looking at the artist in condemnation as he paints her, and extending that disdainful compassion to the viewer. Examining Asúnsolo’s gaze closely, it is possible to feel—as did the Consul in his dipsomaniacal abysses—that one is mistaken in something fundamental, the content of which has been, however, forgotten forever.
Translation by Christina MacSweeney