I was amazed to see as many as nine attendees at our discussion last night, Monday, April 13th, 2009 in the Houston Central Market Community room. I was surprised because I found the book to be extremely difficult, the most difficult I can remember reading in my ten (or maybe fifteen) years of attending Houston Great Book discussions. I was surprised to see there were others that were willing to plow through such a difficult work as UNDER THE VOLCANO by Malcom Lowry.
Even though there were only nine of us and that is less than our usual number of fifteen (or more) for the Houston Central Market Book Club, we had a very good discussion, mainly because we were all "talkers". I say that because usually there are several in the group who say very little and mainly come to listen. Well last night, most of us were quite verbal causing the intensity and energy level of the discussion to be quite high.
Connie moderated the discussion very well but from my viewpoint, this was one of the easier discussions to lead since the rest of us were so eager to jump in and comment and voice our opinions and agree and disagree, etc., all those things that make for a lively discussion. Connie started out asking about the physical appearance of the main characters which were Geoffrey who was 41, Geoffrey's wife Yvonne who was 30, and Geoffrey's half-brother Hugh who was 29.
Our conclusion was that the author didn't give too much detail and we couldn't quite decide why since he was so willing to give so many details on other parts of the book such as the Mexican landscape and animals. The question about physical appearance led to our comments about the background of the characters, such as their childhood and were they British. After some discussion, it was concluded that all three of the main characters were British, this being the reason that Geoffrey and his friend from his childhood, M. Laurelle met when they were very young vacationing in Britain.
We went over some of the facts about the family of the Taskersons, which was the family that Geoffrey stayed with when he visited in his younger days. The details made an interesting story but we couldn't figure out exactly how Geoffrey grew from being someone who disliked alcohol when visiting with the hard-drinking Taskersons to someone who was a raging alcoholic at the time the story was written about 25 years (or so) later.
This particular question or theme came up numerous times during our discussion. Why did Geoffrey drink? And why was it obvious from the beginning that he was never going to be able to quit drinking no matter what the incentive, whether to keep the love of Yvonne or to save his life?
Another question which came up numerous times was why did Yvonne come back to Geoffrey? They had divorced. She had left their home in Mexico which is the setting for the novel. He had not communicated with her though she had written him desperate letters on numerous occasions, letters that were so unimportant to him that he left them in a bar before reading and which he couldn't remember anything about. The letters were found near the end of the story and the contents were shared with the reader. They were quite well written and passionate making the character of Yvonne all the more tragic because of her great love for this man headed for self-destruction.
There were many pages devoted to descriptions of Hugh, his past, his political leaning and his mistakes made as a youth when trying to get his music published. We discussed him and for me, the most important part of his presence in the novel was to show someone who unlike Geoffrey was idealistic, not just cynical. But also, someone who became more realistic, someone who wanted to put his ideals into real action. Geoffrey seemed to give up without trying and to settle for loneliness and isolation without a fight. Hugh seemed to be quite different from this. Hugh's activism possibly was a point the author was trying to make as being a good thing.
Part of the difficulty I had with the book was the fact there was quite a bit of the Spanish language used without translations. Mainly phrases but they seemed to be important phrases and were over my head except for the ones I looked up (I didn't look them all up). One of the phrases repeated in the middle of the book and at the very end was "You Like This Garden that is yours? See that your children [hijos] do not destroy it." We thought this must be a reference to the threat of war that was on the horizon for Mexico and the U.S. and Britain. Franco in Spain was in power, someone who Hugh planned to fight against even though he might be too late.
There were many many many repetitive themes both represented by parts of or objects in the Mexican landscape or by characters or animals discovered by the threesome as they travelled on foot and bus to the Bullrun on the Day of the Dead celebrations. We tried to address all of them but in many cases, we could only guess and weren't sure such as with:
- the barranca and numerous ravines (maybe all the same one) - perhaps symbol of an abyss
- volcanoes Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl that appear and disappear from view
- book of Elizabethan plays (with the note from Geoffrey to Yvonne still inside the pages)
- Indian dying on the side of the road and the pelado who stole the money from him
- the dog
- the riderless horse with the "no 7" on its back that caused the death of Yvonne and was also implicated in Geoffrey's altercation with the police at the end.
- Juan Carillo, the acquaintance of Hugh while in Spain - someone he admired very much
- William Blackstone - someone who disappeared to live with the Indians and was admired by Geoffrey
- an eagle that Yvonne frees from a cage
- the two bulls and the fact that Hugh went into the arena and rode one of them, much to the chagrin of Geoffrey (though Hugh came to no harm)
We wondered what happened to Hugh. We understood the ending for Yvonne and Geoffrey but why did the author leave us hanging with Hugh? No answer for this one.
Most in the group liked the book quite a bit. Guess they wouldn't have stuck with reading it to the end if they hadn't enjoyed it. I will have to remain on the fence as someone who thinks it is possible the book may only have value for literature majors and the literary elite. Or at least for those who have extensive knowledge of Mexico and the language and myths. But I say I'm on the fence because I think I would really need to read it a second time before I can be more convinced of its value or lack of value.
I am glad I read it. One of the reasons I love these book groups is if not for the group, I would never have read this. There are many many people who consider this book a masterpiece and at least now I can have some point to evaluate it for myself even though only on a very slight basis.
Following the discussion, we tallied up the votes from the ballot sheet. I will be announcing the new reading list on our website as well as in meetup.com and in our google group. Stay tuned for the new schedule thru December, 2009.
Looking forward to next months discussion of THINGS FALL APART by Chinua Achebe on May 11, 2009 starting at 7pm in the Houston Central Market community room. More details about our group at http://www.houstonbookclubs.org/CentralMarket/