Monday, 31 January 2011

Battered Penguins II

I chose The Volcanoes Above Us because I had a vague idea that its author, Norman Lewis, had had something to do with Elizabeth David. I was wrong, as it happens - that was Norman Douglas. It didn't matter though, because The Volcanoes Above Us turned out to be terrific in its own right.

The novel is narrated by David Williams, whose family owned a coffee plantation, (or 'finca'),  in Guatemala, until it was taken from them under an 'agrarian new deal'. When we first meet him, he is sitting in a Mexican jail, determined to reclaim his 'finca'. In order to do this - or merely in order to do something - he agrees, in exchange for his freedom, to join 'General Balboa's Army of Liberation', which, he reads in the paper while sitting in his cell, is going to conduct a revolution in Guatemala: 'The paper did not state this as a possibility but as a definite and pre-arranged fact, as if speaking of an exceptional bullfight or a football match'.

Following the revolution, Williams is sent to Guadaloupe, to take control of the situation there and deal with the local Indians, known as Chillams, a taciturn bunch given to 'praying in loud conversational tones to their gods' and watching new arrivals with 'a kind of furtive hatred.' The Chillams, having had their land returned to them by the former regime, have now had it taken away again, this time by the Universal Coffee Company which, despite its name, is in the business of encouraging tourism, a difficult task given the Chillams' habits: 'If any tourist gets his camera out they spit at him.'

The story that Williams unfolds for us following his arrival in Guadaloupe is one in which the self-belief of Westerners - 'with their big bones, their confidence, their pink flesh, and their earth-inheriting voices' - is confronted by the mysterious, almost medieval (in the sense of non-individualistic) collective spirit of the Chillams, who, according to Elliot Winthrop, the manager of the Company, possess no cultural traditions of their own: 'They don't exist. There aren't any. The only thing they do here when they put on a fiesta is to walk round the streets carrying a black box like a coffin and then get drunk'.

First person narratives can often become oppressive: the reader longs for the freedom of another point of view. In The Volcanoes Above Us, however, this never emerges as a problem. The narrator, Williams, is a witty companion who has an appealing sense of the ridiculous, great descriptive powers and a delightfully sardonic tone.  Of General Balboa, leader of the revolution in which Williams participates, he makes this observation, 'His eyes swivelled suddenly in Kranz's direction and I was reminded of the quick sideways scramble of small, black crabs.' Of a rather dubious German who is involved in the government, he says: 'He was brisk, light-hearted, and exuding charm in the same way and for the same purpose as an octopus squirts ink.'

Williams's account of his activities with Balboa's Army of Liberation's is also full of absurd details:  '...we were given ... American war-surplus uniforms all made to fit the same fat man with a dwarf's legs ... Discontent developed among the troops when it was discovered that the bulk of the rations consisted of macaroni letters of the alphabet ...'  These touches only serve to make the single moment of true horror he encounters during the conflict more vivid and intense. In the passage in which he describes that incident, all trace of humour is stripped away and we are faced with unadorned reality. Although afterwards Williams recovers his original jaunty tone, he admits that 'this sudden contact with the basic facts of war had struck deep into my being and a great number of horrific details of the slaughter which I had contrived to forget in my waking hours were nightly displayed to me in ... recurrent dreams.'

It is this - the human habit of self-delusion in the face of reality, the endless contriving to forget - that is the central theme of the novel (alongside the obvious one of colonialism). Each of the main characters is engaged in a more or less successful attempt to escape the world as it is. Hernandez, a journalist acquaintance of Williams, uses movies for this purpose: 'He had organized his life to give himself the maximum time enjoying what the cinema had to show him of the world ... When the cinemas closed at night he went and sat in a soda-fountain over a milk-shake until that closed too, and then he went to bed. This was his life, and he had created of it a reality of his own ...'

Elliot Winthrop, manager of the Company, although he does 'not bother with novels', is equally interested in fictional alternatives to the here and now. He is entranced by the effects produced by his state of the art gramophone, on which he plays and replays a recording of  'a railway engine starting off, accelerating, travelling at full speed, coming to a standstill ..."It's just as if it was in this room, isn't it"', Elliot exclaims to the narrator, '"I mean to say you have a complete illusion of reality."' Elliot, in fact, is dedicated to the creation of illusions not just for himself but for a wider public. His professional life is entirely devoted to a transformation of the way things are: '"We're building a complete typical Indian village right from the word go."' he explains to Williams. '"What happened to the original Indian village?" I asked ... "We tore it down. There's a difference between a place being picturesque and being a plain eyesore."'

Unfortunately for the Company, the reality that is represented by the Chillams is rather more robust than Elliot realises. As it turns out, he is mistaken about this puzzling race - they do, in fact, have a strong, although incomprehensible, tradition. By the time this becomes apparent, of course, it is already too late to do anything about it: the Chillams are rousing themselves, observed by Williams: 'a  white creeping advance of human lava [moving] towards the centre of Guadaloupe', 'moving not so much as individuals but as a gigantic hollow muscle contracting slowly', 'flowing steadily across the bottom of the Alameda - over the central flower beds, across the wide, mosaic pathway, filling the roadway and streaming through more flower beds and shrubberies slow and deliberate as the lazy advance of rollers seen from afar off up a wide beach ... like a termite army [that] would take the shortest route to their objective,' (which seems to be revenge for the smashing of their mysterious black box and the consequent revelation of its contents).

The novel reaches a climax with the ensuing destruction by the Chillams of the Company's project. Following this event, Williams leaves Guatemala, with little idea of what his life holds now. Just as the Company's plans have evaporated, his central illusion - the quest for the return of the family 'finca' - has also gone. Looking down from the plane at 'the veined and crumpled earth', he comforts himself with the realisation that 'I wasn't alone in my capacity for self-deception'. As the book closes he tells us, 'I was optimistic. The kindly fog of illusion was closing in again.'

The Volcanoes Above Us is extremely entertaining, but it also has resonance and depth. In this novel at least Lewis achieved a great feat, creating a book that has an utterly serious central core wrapped in 'the kindly fog' of humour. I highly recommend it.


  1. You should have a look at Lewis's Naples 44, about his stint in Naples serving in British counterintelligence during WW II.

  2. Thanks, George, I'm planning to seek out all his other books. I think he is a brilliant writer.

  3. Just to let you know that there is a new, revised, e-book edition of "Lunch with Elizabeth David". The novel involving David and her mentor, Norman Douglas, originally published by Little Brown, is available in all e-book formats and can be sampled at
    It is also in the Amazon Kindle store.