Footsteps: Seeking truth under the volcano

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The Independent Online
In a bid to turn fiction into fact, Malcolm Senior sets off in the footsteps of Malcolm Lowry, creator of `Under the Volcano'.

"Two mountain chains traverse the republic roughly from north to south, forming between them a number of valleys and plateaux. Overlooking one of these valleys, which is dominated by two volcanoes, lies, 6,000ft above sea level, the town of Quauahnahuac." So begins Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, a novel about the last day in the life of the imaginary ex- Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, an awesome tale of drink-sodden damnation and symbolic doom. Its very words sent shivers down my spine in the unlikely surroundings of the No 239 North Vancouver bus heading towards the less- than-infernal-sounding Deep Cove.

I had always wanted to visit the place where Lowry wrote Under the Volcano, and also the real-life version of the novel's location. The fact that one of them lay in British Columbia and the other was a small town about an hour's drive south of Mexico City, didn't seem to matter; I needed to see them both, preferably on the same trip. So armed with the two main biographies of Lowry, I based myself in Vancouver and began the trail that I hoped would lead me to what remained, if anything, of the shack where he wrote his most famous novel.

Lowry and his volcano were conspicuously absent from Vancouver's guide books. Even Dollarton, the hamlet where he lived from 1940 to 1954, didn't seem to exist on any map. However, guided by fate and the basic knowledge that his shack had been on the north side of Burrard Inlet, near a place called Indian Arm, I set off across Vancouver Harbour on one of the regular ferries to the city's northern shore. I also had in mind a memorably Lowryan vision of a Shell oil refinery, minus its S, blinking infernally opposite the shack. Another clue was the existence of a road called Dollarton Highway, even if there was no sign of Dollarton it its end.

Once in North Vancouver, I caught a bus west to Phibbs Interchange, then another heading along the highway. On the No 239, I asked the driver if he could help me in my quest. He'd never heard of Lowry, or the existence of some fishermen's shacks along the shore. But he said there was a development that had been built about 30 years ago, called Cates Park, and that every summer there was a local music festival called "Under the Volcano".

And so I found myself heading past barbecue tables to the farthest end of Cates Park. There to my amazement was a huge sign that said "Malcolm Lowry Walk" and a map as if drawn by a hasty child which marked the spot of Lowry's shack with a bold X. I followed the path, which ducked into the wood and ran parallel to the inlet. After a few yards, a boulder lay to the side of the track, noting my man's existence here, or at least a few yards along the shore.

On the beach, a mixture of euphoria and grinning idiocy took over. A rise of stones leading into the water; might that not be Lowry's much loved, self-built landing-stage? There was the refinery, but no sign of the Shell logo. Images of Lowry's life swarmed around me like flies. I found a rock to perch on, and taking out Douglas Day's biography I looked at all the pictures of Lowry and his wife, Margerie, ludicrously trying to spot where such and such a picture had been taken.

After a few moments sanity took hold. In truth, there is little sign of where the shack was. Lowry's pier, which had allowed him to dive straight into the deep waters of the inlet, had been destroyed before even the cottages themselves had gone, more than 30 years ago. The area these days is a highly select suburb of North Vancouver. The only modern-day acknowledgement is that Park Lane in Deep Cove was renamed Lowry Lane. In Lowry's time the remoteness of the shacks allowed him to work undisturbed; nowadays, the area relies on hordes of Neighbourhood Watch schemes to keep the place peaceful.

Back in Vancouver itself, the Lowry crusader needs to make one other trip - to the vast expanse of the University of British Columbia. Here the UBC library is home to an archive of goodies about the writer. Seeing that Lowry was nearly always rude about Canada, this seems to me to be a show of extraordinary generosity of spirit on BC's behalf. You'll need to show some reason for wanting to see the collection, but in it you'll find such famous Lowry-ana as sheet music of his songs,and innumerable letters, manuscripts and photos, including my favourite; one of an impishly grinning Lowry clutching a bottle of gin.

Cuernavaca is a long way from Vancouver. Quauhnahuac's real life counterpart lies on the motorway from Mexico City to Acapulco, on the south side of the volcanoes, Popacatapetl and Iztaccihuatl, that gave Lowry his novel's title. It was - and to some extent still is - an affluent commuter town for those who can afford a weekend home away from Mexico City. But Cuernavaca is no Deep Cove. Its tight streets are filled with slow, bedlam-esque buses struggling after an eternity of public service, to climb its harrow ravines. The zocalo, or town square, is small and busy. While I was there, it was filled with protesters seeking better rights for Mexico's indigenous Indians.

One thing it did have in common with Vancouver was its tourist board's complete ignorance of anything to do with either Lowry or his novel. So it was back to the biographies, and a map that I'd torn out of the hotel telephone directory.

The house that Lowry lived in during his time in Cuernavaca, and the one that the Consul inhabits in the novel, was on a small street called Calle Humboldt - in the novel, Calle Nicaragua. At the time it was a quiet parallel to the main drag through the town, but now it's almost as busy. Among the biographers, there's a difference of opinion about precisely which house Lowry and his first wife, Jan, lived in. Douglas Day has them at number 15; Gordon Bowker at number 62. The reason for this became apparent to me after one of the staff in the appropriately named Hotel Baja El Volcan told me that the houses on Calle Humboldt were constantly being renumbered, and certainly not sequentially. Either way, it seems reasonable to believe that the house doesn't exist any more.

Apart from its name, the hotel also has a role in our tale. Part of it is the tower where the character Jacques Laruelle lived, and where Lowry stayed when he inadvisedly returned to Cuernavaca with his second wife, Margerie, in December 1945. The hotel also overlooks the ravine where the Consul's body is dumped along with one of the novel's ubiquitous pariah dogs. Other locations from the book abound. There is the Casino de la Selva; derelict in the novel, rebuilt and then left to ruin once more in real life. There is the Jardin Borda and the unsigned brown swinging doors of the town's forbidding Cantinas, now covered in posters of wet gringo girls in wet T-shirts.

Visiting the locations for books and films risks the disappointment of reality. Works of imagination are altered by the passage of time, sometimes beyond recognition. But more often than not it's a joy to be somewhere that once existed solely on the pages of a book, but now stands before your very eyes. And my journey was more than a visit - it felt like a pilgrimage.

Malcolm Senior paid pounds 583 for an "open-jaw" return on British Airways - flying from Heathrow to Vancouver, returning from Mexico City to Gatwick, booked through Airline Network (01772 727272) in Preston. He travelled between the two cities by bus, train and plane.

In Vancouver he paid $149 per night (about pounds 70) at the Downtown Best Western (00 1 604 669 9888) and in Cuernavaca he stayed at Las Mananitas for 630 pesos a night - about pounds 50, but well worth it (00 73 14 14 66). The rate for Hotel Bajo El Volcan is 256 pesos a night (00 73 12 48 73).

`Malcolm Lowry' by Douglas Day is published by Oxford University Press, 1984 (now out of print) and `Pursued by Furies' by Gordon Bowker is published by HarperCollins, 1993.