Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Underground Explosion: The Ethics of Betrayal in under Western Eyes and Malcolm Lowry's under the Volcano

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Underground Explosion: The Ethics of Betrayal in under Western Eyes and Malcolm Lowry's under the Volcano

Article excerpt

UNDER WESTERN Eyes and Under the Volcano-, the preposition common to the tides of the two novels points to a vertical plane even though more directly so in Under the Volcano (1947). This apparent detail seems, in a way, to hint at the kind of link one may find between these two masterpieces, Malcolm Lowry's novel somehow emphasÍ2Íng the ultimate logic at work in Under Western Eyes. It is significant that the two novels should be at once the most political and the most personal works written by the novelists, and that both should be so successful. Delving into their authors' pasts and conflicting political and personal allegiances, they seem to confirm the statement Lowry makes in his first novel, Ultramarine-. "What one writes, if one is to be any good, should be rooted in some sort of autochtony" (89).

Such autochtony, however, cannot but be problematic for these men who chose to leave their birthplaces and whose relationship with the mother country is stamped with ambivalence. Rooted in such shifting "grounds" (khtôn), the two novels deal with the notion of betrayal, political betrayal being inextricably tangled with personal concerns, even though Conrad and Lowry tried to set up some distance through the narrative devices they chose - the protagonists are introduced to the reader by a peripheral character: the Teacher of Languages, the homodiegetic narrator of Under Western Eyes, and Lamelle, the focalÍ2er of the first chapter in Under the Volcano. In both novels, a Western eye is witness to the violence and dire consequences of radical ideologies that divide other nations: the autocratic Russian regime and the revolutionists in Under Western Eyes, the Mexican Revolution followed by the rampant presence of the Fascists in the Mexico of Under the Volcano.

In both novels, the protagonists strongly resent attempts to involve them in politics and wish to avoid taking sides; yet they will eventually be drawn into conflicts and raging violence, and driven to betrayal - that of Haldin by Ra2umov, and that of the dying Indian by the Consul. The intensely personal overtones this question has for Conrad, divided between his fidelity to his father's romantic revolutionary passion and his maternal uncle's practical and rational conservatism are well-known.1 Similarly, the political split between conservative ideology, on the one hand, and involvement in the Communist fight against Franco in Spain, against fascism and in favour of President Cardenas' socialist policy, on the other, are linked in Lowry's two surrogate father-figures: Conrad Aiken, whose political cynicism the Consul mostly voices; and Nordhal Grieg, a Norwegian writer Lowry much admired, who died in a RAF bomber over Berlin in the Second World War, and whose ideas mostly find their way into the novel through the Consul's half-brother, Hugh.

For Lowry as well as for Conrad, then, the political and personal are intricately entwined. Keith Carabine writes: "Under Western Eyes, the first fiction set in the land of [Conrad's] birth, can be said to return to and investigate the Ur-story behind all the tales of betrayal, mixed loyalties and confession" (1991: 12). By courageously facing the unsettling issue of divided loyalties and probing the subterranean currents that fuel their fiction both writers manage to turn betrayal into a form of ethics that greatly accounts for the gripping power of these works.

The stories, strikingly similar, may be interpreted as tragedies of betrayal, all the more so since for both writers, betrayal is related to the father-figure, a representative of the Law essential to the dramatic pattern of tragedy.2 Yet this all-powerful Other is increasingly emptied out, the tragedy of betrayal turning - mostly in Lowry's hand - into a comedy of errors. This different reading, made obvious in Under the Volcano, also runs through Under Western Eyes, as this essay will try to show before addressing "the ethics of betrayal" at work in both novels, a new sense of ethics called for by the explosions that occur at the end of Under Western Eyes and Under the Volcano alike. …

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