What the Consul drank
(More about Under the Volcano is at Words Without Borders.)
Malcolm Lowry’s great novel Under the Volcano is about, among other things, the Cabbala, Dante, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, the rise of fascism, the ways in which we create hell on earth, and the ways in which we sometimes enjoy that hell and resist escaping it. But it is also about the last day in the life of my namesake Geoffrey Firmin, former British Consul and an extreme alcoholic. I recently reread the book, beginning on November 2, the day in 1939 on which the novel opens, and the day in 1938 on which the action takes place.
A question that’s preoccupied me on previous readings is that of exactly how much the Consul drinks on November 2, 1938. It’s a little hard to determine, since he is not a straightforward drinker. He will accept a drink but not touch it for several pages, he will scavenge the remains of other people’s drinks, and toward the end of the day the careful calibration of his drinking (at least in his own mind) goes completely out of control.
None the less, one can begin by saying that on the night before November 2, the Consul drank heavily at a charity ball held for the Red Cross. He was perfectamente borracho, as other characters remark. As the Day of the Dead begins, we first see the Consul in the Bella Vista bar, shaking “violently” as he pours himself a glass of whiskey (p. 47*). He then takes another half a glass (p. 51).
While walking with his estranged wife Yvonne, who against all odds has returned to him, he ducks into a shop and almost certainly has a quick drink or two while inside (p. 56). “You are—diablo!” the shopkeeper playfully calls after him. Later, while Yvonne is taking a bath at his house, he steps out for some therapeutic alcohol and finds himself lying face down in the street. A passing English motorist stops to check on him, and the Consul takes a “long draught” from a bottle of Burke’s Irish whiskey that the man offers him (p. 80). Back home, he drinks “fiercely” from his own whiskey bottle, then has another “half quartern” (two ounces), plus an additional finger (p. 92).
While Yvonne is probably having a nap, the Consul drinks some Tequila Añejo de Talisco from a bottle he has hidden in the bushes (p. 127). He returns to the bottle a little later (p. 139), then has two Carta Blanca beers with his brother Hugh (p. 142), followed by a “large drink” of bay rum (ordinarily an aftershave). To steady himself so that his brother can shave him, he has a “stiff drink” of whiskey from a bathroom mug (p. 175).
Visiting his friend Dr. Laruelle with Yvonne and Hugh, the Consul restrains himself for some time, but finding himself alone on the balcony, he “drank down all the drinks in sight”: four cocktails (type unspecified), plus what is left in the shaker (p. 208). At a cafe called the Paris, he has a tequila (p. 215), then three more (pp. 227 and 229) at the shadowy Terminal Cantina El Bosque, with its sinister connotations of endings and Dante’s dark forest.
As Hugh, Yvonne, and the Consul travel on a bus, Hugh takes out a “small pinch bottle of habanero”—perhaps tequila flavored with habanero pepper? By p. 278 the Consul has nearly finished it, and a few pages later he is at the Salón Ofélia, “oozing alcohol from every pore,” and telling himself, “How sensible to have had a mescal.” By p. 303 he has had a second, plus several drinks more from a lemonade bottle filled with mescal—drinks that he tells himself he has had in fact but “had not drunk so far as the others were concerned.” He follows this with a beer.
“‘Mescal,’ said the Consul.” These are the words that open Chapter XII, the final chapter, in which the Consul meets his doom. At the Farolito bar in Parian, toward which he has been drawn all day, the Consul has two mescals (p. 337), then another (p. 344), then another (p. 346), then finishes an almost empty bottle (p. 348) before having yet another mescal (p. 358).
At this point, threatened by some paramilitary thugs, he loses all control. “Innumerable tequilas and mescals were being brought and the Consul drank everything in sight without regard for ownership.” A little later a pimp, who has been hanging out in the rest room and may also be a spy, slaps the Consul “calamitously on the back” as he is taking a “long drink”—the last drink he will ever have.
How many drinks is that in all? Certainly more than forty, and perhaps more than fifty. It’s occurred to me that you could have a pretty lively party with no more alcohol than the Consul drank by himself in one day. Management accepts no responsibility if you choose to try it.
*Page references are to the 1965 Lippincott edition.