The Enigma of Arrival

The Enigma of the Arrival and the Afternoon (1912) – Giorgio de Chirico

“. . . in the foreground there are two figures, both muffled, one perhaps the person who has arrived, the other perhaps a native of the port. The scene is of desolation and mystery; it speaks of the mystery of arrival.” p.91-2

V. S. Naipaul’s novel The Enigma of Arrival refers to this painting by de Chirico, in which Naipaul outlines a story he wishes to write, based on the painting.

It is a personal meditation; a concentrated story about the sadness at the heart of love. Naipaul begins with a dedication: ‘In loving memory of my brother Shiva Naipaul 25 February 1945, Port of Spain 13 August 1985, London’. It is also a reflection on mortality. This is different from the other books I’ve read by Naipaul. In this book, Naipaul creates an intensely spiritual space in which a reader can be blissfully alone.

“He would walk past that muffled figure on the quayside. He would move from that silence and desolation, that blankness, to a gateway or door. He would enter there and be swallowed by the life and noise of a crowded city . . . Gradually there would come to him a feeling that he was getting nowhere, he would lose his sense of mission; he would begin to know only that he was lost. His feeling of adventure would give way to panic. He would want to escape, to get back to the quayside and his ship. But he wouldn’t know how . . . At the moment of crisis he would come upon a door, open it, and find himself back on the quayside of arrival. He has been saved; the world is as he remembered it. Only one thing is missing now. Above the cut-out walls and buildings there is no mast, no sail. The antique ship is gone. The traveller has lived out his life.” p. 91-2

8 thoughts on “The Enigma of Arrival

  1. This book is a hoax. But an ingenious one. Read it twice. First as an unprepared reader who doesn’t know what it is really about and then read Alberto Manguel’s A Reading Diary. One piece of information changes here everything. After this read Naipaul’s novel second time. Then you will know that the main subject of it is literary elipsis.

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      • An unprepared reader who doesn’t know the context thinks it is a beautiful novel about a traveller who wanders and admires the surrounding countryside. It’s only a mystification, camouflage netting that covers the reality of the novel. Here we have an alien (an immigrant) who lands in an English village of the 1960s/1970s. It’s a rural, xenophopic and hostile community. Our narrator’s physical appearence is different. His skin colour is different. His language is different. His religion and culture are different. He lives and interacts with those people on day-to day basis and in the whole novel there is only one sentence where he uncovers the real world in which we learn that they didn’t want to sell him a house. Beautiful entourage replaces reality. Reality disappears, is omitted and a great elipsis rules in The Enigma of Arrival. The novel is a masterpiece but in a different way than most people think.

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        • I can almost see how a reader could read the first half of the novel as a pastoral whimsy, but there is an atmosphere almost throughout that speaks of dislocation and alienation. It is cleverly done and only rarely alluded to but there nevertheless.

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