LEGLESS IN MEXICO

Malcolm Lowry came to Cuernavaca to write, but drinking proved his real talent. Charles Nicholl followed his footsteps

Malcolm Lowry died 40 years ago this month, his stomach full of gin and barbiturates, his body ravaged by chronic alcoholism. He was 47 years old. The coroner recorded a verdict of misadventure; there were unconfirmed whispers of suicide.

Lowry died in a rented cottage in Sussex, but his name is indelibly associated with Mexico, the setting of his masterpiece, Under the Volcano. The book was first published in 1947, so this is really a double-anniversary year for Lowry. It seemed an auspicious time to go off in search of "Lowry's Mexico".

The trail begins in the pleasant town of Cuernavaca, an hour's drive south of Mexico City. To be more precise, it begins on a certain concrete bollard on a street called Calle Rio Balsas. If you stand on this, on tiptoe, you can just see over the wall opposite, to a large pinkish-coloured building set in overgrown gardens. It used to be a hotel called the Casino de la Selva.

Among the trees is a statue of the conquistador Hernan Cortes, whom Keats famously imagined standing "silent upon a peak in Darien", staring at the Pacific, though it was in fact the less scannable Nunez de Balboa who did that. But my eye is fixed on the old hotel, and in particular the balconied terrace which runs along the front of it at first floor level. It is the precise spot where Under the Volcano begins.

"Towards sunset on the Day of the Dead in November 1939, two men in white flannels sat on the main terrace of the Casino drinking anis ..."

The two men are Dr Vigil and Jacques Laruelle. The scene is a kind of prologue to the main action, which describes the last day in the life of the ex-Consul, Geoffrey Firmin. The volcano of the title is the great mountain Popocatapetl, which in those pollution-free days could be clearly seen from here. Lowry's drinking buddy, the American poet Conrad Aiken, nicknamed the book "Poppa-gets-the-botl".

I had imagined taking a commemorative anis on the terrace, but it was not to be. The hotel closed down a couple of years ago. As the cigarette- seller standing nearby puts it simply: "No existe."

There is an ostentatiously padlocked gate. There is a nightclub called Mambo, also closed, in what was probably one of the hotel's outbuildings. And there is the Happy Vally (sic) parking-lot, with its logo of a top hat tipped vaguely towards the hotel's former identity as a casino, though this was already in the past when Lowry was here. "It is no a longer a casino," he writes. "You cannot even dice for drinks in the bar."

I have tried to get a closer look, but the Happy Vally security guard won't let me into the parking-lot without a ticket, so I must be content with this distant viewpoint, silent upon a bollard in Cuernavaca, and with the friendly cigarette-seller as my chief informant. "It was a fine hotel," he says. "It had more than 300 rooms. Very de luxe."

Among the lollipops and tortilla crisps and "I Love Mexico" cigarette- lighters on his stall, he finds an old postcard of the hotel, but all it shows is the hotel's swimming pool, with some old-fashioned deck-chairs and a couple of waistcoated waiters. I buy it anyway. The pickings are slim, but that is the nature of these literary pilgrimages.

Lowry arrived in Cuernavaca in late 1936, with his first wife Jan (Yvonne in Under the Volcano). He was 27 years old, the black-sheep son of a wealthy Cheshire industrialist, a published novelist (Ultramarine, 1933), a former merchant-seaman, a "two fisted drinker", a literary drifter.

Photographs of him at this time make him look like a dodgy prep school master - the pipe, the beard, the shock of hair, the tweedy trousers. Conrad Aiken describes him, in the summer of 1937, in the zcalo, or little plaza, of Cuernavaca: "the slightly absurd but always altogether delightful figure advancing towards them; his trousers knotted round the waist with a necktie, and looking as if they might fall off any minute; and grinning at them shyly and affectionately and a little drunkenly."

Cuernavaca must have been a charming place then. It still is, though the population, a mere 8,000 in Lowry's day, is now over half a million. The Aztecs called it Quauhnahuac, "on the edge of the woods". The Spanish garbled this to Cuernavaca, meaning "cow-horn". Lowry used the older, uncompromised spelling.

At an altitude of 5,000ft, lushly fertile, and blessed with the "eternal spring" of the tierra templada, Cuernavaca is a popular weekend resort from Mexico City, with secretive high-walled villas in the burgeoning suburbs. It has always been a place of recreation, retirement and comfortable exile. The Aztec nobility summered here; Cortes followed suit and built his rather grim palace. It was the favourite retreat of Maximilian, the melancholy Austro-Hungarian prince who reigned briefly as Emperor of Mexico in the 1860s, and his young wife Charlotte or Carlotta. Maximilian fell for a local Indian girl, and built a well-appointed love-nest in the village of Acapatzingo, now a sleepy suburb.

"Cuernavaca is a city of ghosts," says Ruth Davidoff, a longtime resident of the town. "We live among them." (Her own ghost even, she adds, for behind her on the mantelpiece is her portrait, painted 40 years ago by Diego Rivera.)

At one time or another, the town has been home to exiles like the Shah of Iran and Papa Doc Duvalier and Maria Jose, the last Queen of Italy. The screen actress Helen Hayes had a house here, as did the millionairess Barbara Hutton. Here Charles Lindberg met his wife Anne, daughter of the American financier Dwight Morrow, who was US ambassador to Mexico in the 1920s.

And here - in this bougainvillaea-bowered hideaway, in this "sunny place for shady people", with a verandah on Calle Humboldt to sit and write on, and an allowance of $100 a month from his father to live on, and a young and very beautiful wife - in short, one may say tut-tuttingly, with everything apparently going for him - here Lowry fell into the black spiral of drunkenness, jealousy and despair which he chronicles with such alarming honesty in Under the Volcano.

After the locked-up casino, there is further disappointment on Calle Humboldt. It does not seem possible to locate the house in which Lowry lived, and where he began the first draft of Volcano. The street numbers have changed many times, the last time recently enough for most houses to carry two numbers. Lowry's own evidence is contradictory: his letters are written from Calle Humboldt 62, but he later refers to their former home as No 15.

It was not the building at the top of the street which is now the Hotel Bajo el Volcan - the only visible allusion to Lowry that I found in the whole town. The manageress, Senora Avila Tellez, assures me he lived here, but it is actually the house he gives to the adulterous Frenchman Laruelle in Under the Volcano. Its characteristic twin-towers can be seen, though later additions obscure them. The consul's house - Lowry's house - was lower down the street, and single-storey.

The cinema on Morelos Street is still there: in the book it was showing The Hands of Orlac with Peter Lorre. So is the penitentiary, now euphemistically described as the Centro Estatal de Readaptcion Social. And there are the barrancas, the steep, rubbish- choked ravines which cut through the town like ugly scars, and which in Lowry's Dantesque imagination become a glimpse of hell - "vast, threatening, gloomy, dark, frightening: the terrific drop, the darkness below."

And what of Charlie's Bar? None of the elderly residents I spoke to seemed to recall it. It was his favourite watering hole, with its "throbbing refrigerator" and its "upturned spittoons". A letter to Conrad Aiken ends: "Come to Charlie's, where I am, soon: old Aggie's got the orrors something orful".

In his memoirs Aiken recalls their marathon binges at Charlie's - "the drunken words competing with the uproar of the square, the barking of maimed dogs, the mad bicyclists, the busses roaring in and out, and that demonic bird in the cafe next door ..."

A snatch of conversation goes thus:

"Have another tequila?"

"Yes how I hate the bloody stuff. Charlie! And these bloody little limes. And good jumping Christ, there's that bitch again, and that bloody bird ..."

"Well, here's to death and betrayal. Mine first, yours afterward."

Aiken describes Charlie's as "a little corner cafe with open stone arches and red covered tables, facing the palace square". After diligent enquiry, I believe it was the bar now called Flash Flaco. This was formerly called the Tequila Roja; before that, in the early 1980s, El Mostachio de Pepe: further back than that I cannot get. It fits Aiken's description geographically, and is the first bar you would come to on the "palace square" - the Alameda - if you were coming up, thirstily, from Calle Humboldt.

They would not recognise it now: the bland international decor, the piped rock-musak, the video screen showing some kind of Mexican MTV, the sushi bar. It is fun tracking these places down - I sometimes suspect the lingering influence of Big Chief I-Spy: one is "spotting" literary backdrops as one used to spot green woodpeckers and Westmoreland terriers - but the reality is so often disappointing. You are, quite simply, in the right place at the wrong time.

And so you wind up, after a day of enjoyable but pointless pursuit, in the crowded zcalo to which all roads lead. It is the evening hour they call entre dos luces, between two lights; the hour of strollers and talkers observing the day's departure; the hour one is quietly in love with Mexico. The urracas, the small glossy crows of the region, are making a phenomenal racket in the trees, exactly as Lowry heard them - "shatterers of the twilight hour ... the zcalo rings with their incessant drilling mechanic screech". And suddenly, amid this twilight hubbub, you begin to place him. He would come shambling purposefully across the square, past the bandstand with its cramped arcade of juice- stalls underneath, past the corn-cob cooks, and the balloon-sellers with their great floating bouquets, and the shoeshine customers in their little canopied thrones, this "carelessly powerful" but "slightly absurd" figure advancing towards you.

And you wonder: would you be glad to see him, or would you slip off into the crowd to avoid him?

On balance, probably the former, the drunkenness redeemed by his humour, his learning, his "wonderful visionary gift of the gab." His friend David Markson said: "Time with Lowry was somehow concentrated, distilled." Another long-suffering acquaintance said: "Just one look at the old bastard makes me happy for a week."

Though Lowry lived mostly in Cuer-navaca, he also drew deeply on the handsome, airy town of Oaxaca (pronounced "wahaca") in south-western Mexico. He stayed at the Hotel Francia, which is still in business - there are the stairs down which he would creep at night, past the sleeping porter, to crawl the cantinas until dawn with his Zapotec Indian friend, Juan Fernando Mrquez, the model for Dr Vigil. He visited the shrine of Nuestra Senora de la Soledad, which Mrquez (and Vigil) called the church "for those who have nobody with".

He came here after splitting up with Jan: he was on the skids. "Oaxaca! The word was like a breaking heart, a sudden peal of stifled bells in a gale ..." He was several times "clapped in the local chokey", as he puts it, for being drunk and for expressing unpopular anti-Fascist views. "In a Mexican prison you have to drink out of a pisspot sometimes, especially when you have no passport".

By a marvellous twist, the gaol which housed Lowry for some weeks over Christmas 1937-8, and on other occasions, is now Oaxaca's most luxurious hotel, the Camino Real. Originally a convent, it was expropriated in 1862 by the reformist government of Benito Juarez, and served as the municipal prison till 1976. In a secluded courtyard there is a doorway scrawled with prisoners' graffiti. One reads: "In this cursed prison where poverty reigns we are punished for our crime and also for our poverty". Another says simply, "No Hay Libertad". There is no freedom.

In Oaxaca I concluded - or admitted what I had known all long - that if Lowry's ghost was to be found anywhere, it was at the bottom of a bottle of mescal. In his fragmentary novel-cum-memoir, Dark as the Grave wherein my Friend is Laid, Lowry writes eloquently in praise of this Mexican fire- water: it is a "pure drink", a "civilised drink", though also a dangerously powerful one - "The evils that dwell in rye dwell not in it, though others, worse, may ... In mescal lies the principle of that god-like or daemonic force in Mexico that, anyone who has lived there knows, remains to this day unappeased."

Mexico produces 8 million litres of mescal a year, and three out every four is produced in the Oaxaca region. If you need to get legless in Mexico, this is the place to do it. Half an hour out of Oaxaca, on the road between Tlacolula and Mitla, you come to a low building with a sign saying FABRICA DE MESCAL. It has more the look of a farmstead than a factory, its outbuildings merging into sparse scrub. The plain is dotted with large spiky plants with a spray of spear-like leaves. These are the blue agave, or aloe, known as maguey - the raw material of what you are repeatedly told is the best mescal in the world.

Five men stand in the interior gloom, round the still, talking softly and drinking. The still is formed of a metal tank of hot water, and a smaller cylinder, called the olla, or stewpot, which contains the fermented maguey. They courteously show me round. Here is the earthen oven in which the maguey is cooked; it emerges a dull, sodden orange colour, like a giant rhubarb, and has at this point a sweet, caramelish taste when chewed. Here is the 800kg millstone, and the mule which pulls it, and the vats in which the mash is distilled for three days. And then they invite me to drink.

There are various forms of mescal, and after an hour of concentrated Mexican hospitality, I have sampled just about all of them. The best known is mescal de gusano. The gusano is a grub which inhabits the maguey: a specimen floats pickled in the bottle, to be swallowed by the last-drop drinker who derives all sorts of powers thereby. (For export to Taiwan, they put three or four gusano in the bottle.) There is mescal de pechuga, or "chicken- breast mescal", so-called for the slice of maguey leaf floating in it, imparting a pretty honey-colour to the brew. There are flavoured mescals - orange, camomile, almond - and vintage mescals aged up to 10 years in oak barrels. And there is the pure, colourless, unsullied mescal del monte, just as Nature intended.

It is indeed a wonderful drink, very pure - not even sugar is added, the natural sweetness of the maguey being sufficient - and seems to get you high more than drunk.

Night has fallen, the moon is up, the last bus to Oaxaca has long gone. The bottle goes round once more.

"Salud y pesetas!"

"Y tiempo para gastarlas!"

It is the traditional toast, as raised by Vigil and Laruelle on the terrace of the casino, and doubtless many times by Lowry himself: "Health and wealth - and time to enjoy them".

I drain the little cup of smoky-tasting mescal, the "bloody stuff" that brought him none of these things, only moments of pure intoxication such as this, on the moonlit plains of Tlacolula, and the words of Dr Vigil seem to whisper in my ear: "Come, amigo, throw away your mind." !

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE

Return flights from London to Mexico City start from around pounds 386 with Lufthansa (0345 737 747) via Frankfurt, or with Iberia (0171 830 0011) via Madrid. British Airways (0345 222 111) fly direct from around pounds 434 return. From there you can take an internal flight to the airport at Temixco, which is 20 minutes away from Cuernavaca. Alternatively, it is about a one and a half hour drive from Mexico City to Cuernavaca. There is a regular bus service between Mexico City and Cuernavaca which costs around US$3.65.

STAYING THERE

Hotel accommodation is widely available in Cuernavaca. Prices range from 130 pesos (around pounds 10) per person per night for the Motel Posada Primavera (00 52 7 313 0800) to 459 pesos (around pounds 35) per person per night for the Posada Jacarandas (00 52 7 315 7798).

TOURS

Journey Latin America (0181 747 3108) arrange travel to and around Mexico. A week's holiday in Mexico City with a two-night stay in Cuernavaca costs from pounds 865 per person (including flights and accommodation) based on two sharing.

FURTHER INFORMATION

British passport holders do not need a visa to visit Mexico. Mexican Government Tourist Office, 60/61 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N (0171 839 3177).

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