Reprise Books

The Enigma of Arrival by V.S. Naipaul: Review

De Chirico’s ‘The Enigma of the Arrival and the Afternoon’, used on the cover of the novel’s first edition.

De Chirico’s ‘The Enigma of the Arrival and the Afternoon’, used on the cover of the novel’s first edition.  

The ambition to be a writer was given to V.S. Naipaul by his father, a journalist for much of his working life. His story would inspire Naipaul, who passed away last Sunday, to shape a memorable character — Mohun Biswas — who struggles to find happiness and a home.

Apart from the thinly-veiled autobiographical turn in A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), Naipaul wrapped his 1987 narrative The Enigma of Arrival around “that noble thing” — writing.The narrator — difficult to think it’s not Naipaul — takes many journeys, actual and imaginary, to ‘arrive’ where he has been led to. It’s not an easy path from colonial Trinidad to the English countryside, let alone to becoming a writer.

An old scab

The Enigma... begins with the narrator apprehensive of any excursion in his adopted country. “... what for others might have been an adventure — was for me like a tearing at an old scab.” Living in a beautiful place near Stonehenge, he feels “strangeness, my solitude.” But slowly, the beauty is peeled away to reveal the crumbling of an old coloniser. Naipaul builds the story through an account of Jack, a farm labourer, and his garden. The narrator is an interloper, perhaps, in this rustic setting of manor and rolling meadows, but a closer look shows things are not as they used to be. Though Jack “lived among ruins,” the storyteller doesn’t see this initially. “The idea of ruin and dereliction, of out-of-placeness, was something I felt about myself...” Soon, he sees that “Jack was living in the middle of junk, among the ruins of nearly a century.”

As the outsider, the narrator leans on his observations to describe what is happening in the world. Will his dream of being a writer be fulfilled? There was a time he wanted to write about Giorgio de Chirico’s painting ‘The Enigma of Arrival and the Afternoon’ because it appeared to refer to “something in my own experience.” The cover of the first editions of the book bears the painting which is described as a scene of desolation and mystery: “it speaks of the mystery of arrival.”

Pain of a moment

The process leaves him anxious and exhausted as he tries to make sense of everyone’s story — Jack, another gardener Pitton, the estate manager Phillips, his wife, a failed writer, and his own.

There appears to be no one to tell him — ‘Even this shall pass away.’ As Naipaul writes in Finding the Centre, recalling what his father used to say: “It was an elastic consolation. It could deal with the pain of a moment, a day, life itself.” As you read of the narrator’s struggle, you can’t help thinking of Naipaul’s ride as a master storyteller who went on to win the Nobel Prize in 2001.

The writer looks back at one classic each fortnight.

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 11:52:01 AM |

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