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.

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