Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival

It is difficult to put aside The Enigma of Arrival. Its lack of linearity, its repetitions and uncertainties mirror all too familiarly bone-deep memories of melancholy. To inhabit The Enigma of Arrival is to immerse oneself almost too deeply into its narrator’s solipsism and sadness.

On the front cover of this Viking first edition, the book in hand is declared The Enigma of Arrival: A Novel, that subtitle a reminder that this is creation not memoir. I think there is nothing quite like this novel. It disturbs and enchants, or rather disenchants. After the conventional cover to cover reading, I reread Part 2, the narrator’s contextualising his arrival in Part 1 to a cottage in Wiltshire, then turned back to Part 1 and read it through again.

There is a famous racehorse, at one time kept in a paddock near the narrator’s cottage while awaiting death. Naipaul writes, “In a short time the horse ceased to be in the paddock. It had died. Like so many deaths here, in this small village, like so many big events, it seemed to happen off-stage.” Everything happens off-stage to this narrator, even the sister’s death that draws the novel to its conclusion. Naipaul seems more drawn to events peripheral to the major occurrences. In this way it seems not to be a novel at all; it eludes material that would be central to a novel. If not a novel, it is certainly something else.

This something else is what I’ve been reluctant to put down: “How sad it was to lose that sense of width and space.” But it feels almost indulgent, in that way one must force oneself to get out of bed on a melancholy day, for to remain is of far greater danger.

2 thoughts on “Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival

  1. Your posts have convinced me to read this – am getting a copy and will dive in at the end of February. It sounds enchanting (and the dual meaning comment from another reader also intrigues me), and that is exactly the kind of book I’d love right now.

    • Despite the autobiographical elements, Naipaul doesn’t get in the way of his text too much; and its rewards and provocations are worthwhile. I very much look forward to seeing what you make of it all.

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