The Enigma of Arrival Essay - Critical Essays

V. S. Naipaul

Critical Context

As a narrative intensely concerned with the process of writing, The Enigma of Arrival encompasses the writing of many of Naipaul’s other books. When he arrives in Wiltshire, the writer is working on a story about Africa, a story that must be a section of In a Free State (1971), a Booker Prize winner and one of several books that established Naipaul’s as an important voice. In “A Journey,” he tells how he initially found this voice by writing about the Trinidad street where he had spent part of his childhood (Miguel Street, 1959). With this writing, he says, “knowledge came to me rapidly. . . . my curiosity grew fast.” Two other works especially important in helping him understand his Trinidad origins were the much admired A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), based on his father’s life, and a history, The Loss of El Dorado (1969). These latter two books in particular seem to have given him the self-probing confidence and readiness to embrace a new world with which he endows the writer of The Enigma of Arrival.

During the period that The Enigma of Arrival describes, Naipaul was producing some his bleakest writing: In a Free State and A Bend in the River (1979), both of which draw terrifying pictures of the alienation produced by twentieth century migrations, and also Guerrillas (1975) and India: A Wounded Civilization (1977). The Enigma of Arrival marks a change in tone: The writing and feeling become gentler, more compassionate, hopeful, and open-ended. India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990) and A Way in the World (1994) continue this new mode.

Although Naipaul dislikes such categorization, he is seen as a leading writer about the postcolonial world, its migrations and cultural dislocations. His writing has encompassed not only life in Trinidad and England (his subjects in The Enigma of Arrival) but also Africa, the Islamic world, the United States, and India. The Enigma of Arrival is a major work in its own right; moreover, in its subjectivity, it is brilliantly illuminating of its author’s more outward-turning explorations.