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In 1971, V.S. Naipaul told Ian Hamilton, “It took me a long time to see that I had no society to write about. I had to write differently. I had to look at the world afresh.” Sixteen years later, he would publish The Enigma of Arrival, his most autobiographical novel, taken by some as a memoir. Like Naipaul himself, it is a complex, ambiguous little book, carrying all the confession of a standard memoir but the fine craft and imagination of a work of fiction. It could not, however, be written any other way. Central to the text is Naipaul’s understanding of himself as a first a novelist, and then a person. In a 1984 interview, Stephen Schiff observed, “This is how he talks, as if he were observing from afar the creature who bears his name. He says ‘one’ instead of ‘I’ he refers to himself as ‘the writer’ and sometimes as ‘the man.’ ‘I do it instinctively, distinguishing between them, between writer and man'” (Schiff 139). The Enigma of Arrival is a highly constructed piece of prose, just as Naipaul’s life has been a highly constructed series of events orchestrated by his insatiable ambition and quixotic quest for an ideal homeland. The other major theme of The Enigma of Arrival deals with the latter, as Naipaul, the great colonialist, presents his narrator as a man constantly out of place; he arrives in the England of his fantasies only to find a decaying empire that does little to satisfy his sense of homelessness. In The Enigma of Arrival, Naipaul presents a memoir that is unquestionably a writerly text, packed with meticulous observation and nuance that only an equally self-conscious novelist and outsider could create.
The Enigma of Arrival is constructed in a cyclical format. The novel ends where it will later begin (“And that was when, faced with a real death, and with this new wonder about men, I lay aside my drafts and hesitations and began to write very fast about Jack and his garden.” [Enigma 354]), a narrative in constant motion, which is a particularly mind-bending modernist technique also employed in Finnegans Wake, monster brainchild of perhaps the most self-aware novelist that has ever written in English. This serves the dual purpose of both situating Naipaul’s position as a writer in the English tradition (as do the countless other allusions, implicit and otherwise, in the text) and the novel’s position as what Stuart Schiff called a “cutaway view of narrative itself, as though the story it told were just a crust beneath which the reader could watch the shifting plates of a writer’s consciousness” (Schiff 147). The cyclical format is also echoed in The Enigma of Arrival’s parallel thematic imagery of death, decay, rebirth and change. Naipaul relies heavily on the archaic landscape of Wiltshire to present the sense of stagnation, decay and alienation he feels there. The opening of the book is crammed with almost compulsive description as the narrator begins to come to terms with the fact that the England he is living has long past its days of glory. “The taut lines of barbed wire made me feel… that I was also in a way at the end of the thing I had come upon… But already I had grown to life with the idea that things changed; already I lived with the idea of decay… These ideas, of a world of decay, a world subject to constant change, and of the shortness of human life, made many things bearable” [Enigma 23]). Death, the other great force in the first part of the book, is frequently invoked as a reminder of the transient notion of home, as well as power. The narrator’s return to Trinidad for the burial of his sister marks a change in his life: his “rebirth” as a writer, inspiring The Enigma of Arrival itself, but also the death of the last parts of home that may remain for him in Trinidad. The death of Alan, the friendly but unprolific English writer at a time when the narrator is successful is symbolic of the change that is overcoming England, the death of the Empire that the narrator’s presence and success in Wiltshire is a part of. In each case of death, decay and disappointment, it is always the craft-even the same very text itself-that ultimately balances each force. “With me, everything started from writing. Writing had brought me to England, had sent me away from England, had given me a vision of romance; had nearly broken me with disappointment. Now it was writing, the book, that gave savor, possibility to each day, and took me on night after night” (EOA 169).
And yet Naipaul’s vision of himself includes a constant placelessness, perhaps an extension of a romanticized notion of the writer as one in eternal solitude, or possibly the outcome of a bright young mind, raised on fairy-tale notions of the glorious British Empire, so eager to excel in a world he felt could offer him little, that nothing will ever match the adopted motherland he has imagined. The deconstruction of the narrator’s English fantasies fuel his growing sense as an eternal outsider. His identification of aspects of the Wiltshire countryside through art history books, through literature, again places his experience as writerly, but also continues to place him as an outsider, one who has not had the lived history to know these places he travels. His initial trips around the garden are tentative, he feels as though he is trespassing simply by being there, even though he has been given permission to travel the grounds. Once having felt the English landscape possessed “more meaning… than the tropical street where I had grown up” (Naipaul 5), his bout of fever touches him with a remembrance of being looked after, comforted and cared for in Trinidad. And yet his return to Trinidad is bittersweet. “Far away, in England, I had re-created this [Trinidadian] landscape in my books. The landscape of the books was not as accurate or full as I had pretended it was; but now I cherished the original, because of that act of creation” (Naipaul 151-152). But, now that he has been able to acquire a fondness for it, it is no longer his. “As soon as I had a new idea about the place, it had ceased to be mine” (Naipaul 158). It remains unclear, then, to the reader and the narrator himself, whether his anxiety is a result of the failure of an impossible goal to reclaim a culture that never originally belonged to him, or of an inescapable restlessness that will follow him around the world.
Dare one detect a softening of Naipaul in his old age? A great deal of emotional maturity is catalogued in The Enigma of Arrival, including, perhaps, an acknowledgement of not only the faulty promise of England, but also the “joke knowledge… knowledge (which would have appeared like sophistication) that had been fed by the manor and the grounds” (Naipaul 282), of the archaic English gentry that Naipaul once admired, and often wrote himself in his travelogues. Again, we see in that judgment of the landlord’s writing another mark of the dying empire: the landed British gentry enthusiastically hoping for the approval of the immigrant writer. “My own presence in the valley, in the cottage of the manor, was an aspect of another kind of change…” he realizes; “Everyone was aging, everything was being renewed or discarded” (Naipaul 32). It is difficult for one’s heart not to soften a bit at the obnoxious, provocative Naipaul, wondering how much of his outrageous opinions are borne from his fear of placelessness. Isn’t there a way, as Hamilton asked in that same interview, that we could just cheer him up? But as always for the writer, the disillusionment does not last, and only gives greater meaning to his work. “I lived not with the idea of decay-that idea I quickly shed-so much as with the idea of change. I lived with the idea of change, of flux, and learned, profoundly, not to grieve for it… Decay implied an ideal, a perfection in the past” (Naipaul 210).
Hamilton, Ian, “Without a Place: V.S. Naipaul in Conversation with Ian Hamilton” (1971), Conversations with V.S. Naipaul, ed. Feroza Jussawalla, Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1987, 14-21.
Naipaul, V.S, The Enigma of Arrival, New York: Random House, 1997.
Mustafa, Fawzia, “Right of Abode,” V.S. Naipaul, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, 159-195.
Schiff, Stephen, “The Ultimate Exile” (1984), Conversations with V.S. Naipaul, ed. Feroza Jussawalla, Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1987, 14-21.
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