The Enigma of Arrival
The journey has been a recurring motif in the Western literary and religious tradition, from Homer to T. S. Eliot, from the Bible to the medieval Christian mystics. The journey of the hero, in which he undergoes difficult trials before returning home triumphant, occurs in many mythologies around the world. Such examples might not at first glance seem relevant for a review of a novel by V. S. Naipaul. Although Naipaul frequently does write about journeys, they are usually journeys into exile and hopelessness, and his work is permeated by a sense of irrevocable loss. This was one of the themes, for example, of Naipaul’s last work of fiction, A Bend in the River (1979). In his autobiographical novel The Enigma of Arrival, however, familiar themes emerge in an unexpectedly fresh and positive light.
The novel is about the separation of a man from his homeland, and from himself, followed by his eventual recovery of wholeness and integrity, in which he feels connected with nature and its rhythms. It is a story about death and rebirth, about the gaining of wisdom, and of calm insight into the complex mystery of things. As such it is one of the most optimistic and profound of Naipaul’s works.
The story covers a period of nearly thirty-five years (although, characteristically, Naipaul does not approach his material chronologically, but loops forward and backward at will until the tapestry is complete), beginning with the narrator’s first journey from his home in Trinidad in 1950, at the age of eighteen, to take up a scholarship at Oxford University. He has already decided that he is going to be a writer. The events of this first trip—arrival in New York, passage by sea to Southampton, a two-month stay at a boardinghouse in Earl’s Court, London—are less important than the young man’s state of mind. He has a preconceived idea of what a writer should be like and of what constitutes suitable material about which to write. Without realizing it, he is being false to himself, not responding truly to the experiences he is accumulating. He later attributes much of this to the abstract education he had received in Trinidad (for example, he could write an essay on the French cinema but had never seen a French film). It is only later that this split between man and writer is healed.
After twenty years in England, he finds himself mentally exhausted, haunted by the fear of failure (although he has also had his share of success), and dogged by a recurring nightmare in which his head seems to be exploding and he is certain that he is about to die. In this depressed frame of mind, he moves to an isolated country setting in Waldenshaw, a village near Salisbury in the southern English county of Wiltshire. Living in a cottage on the grounds of an old manor house which had been built at the height of Britain’s imperial wealth and power, initially he feels out of place, a foreigner from another hemisphere.
In the more than ten years he spends there, however, his life takes an unexpected turn. He experiences a rebirth. For the first time in his adult life, he finds that even though he remains in an alien land, he is at peace. He learns to absorb the contours of the landscape, to appreciate the changing of the seasons—which forms a constant background in the novel—the fruits that each season brings, and the sacredness of the land. It is as if he were learning a second language and seeing things for the first time. He journeys back to a “simplicity and directness” of perception. It is almost like a return to Eden, a “second, happier childhood . . . the second arrival (but with an adult’s perception) at a knowledge of natural things, together with the fulfillment of the child’s dream of the safe house in the wood.” This is a remarkable journey for an author who has so frequently chosen to depict alienation and rootlessness, the incompatibility between men and their environment.
It is through the narrator’s daily walks, which take on something of the quality of a spiritual pilgrimage, that this new life grows. Much of what he learns comes from his observation of the simple integrity in the life of Jack, the farm worker, and the manner in which he cultivates his garden. The narrator senses the contrast between Jack and himself—Jack fits his environment, and he seems to have found fulfillment in the routine of life that he has cultivated, in tune with the seasons. His life appears like a “constant celebration.” It is because he knows how to live that he also knows how, when the time comes, to die. The narrator sees one of Jack’s final acts—rousing himself, when mortally sick, to drive down to the public house to spend a Christmas evening with his friends—as heroic and life-affirming. Learning how to cope with death is one of the underlying themes of the novel, and Jack is held up as an example.
Jack remains a strong presence in the novel even after his death. Although his garden is turned into allotments and later concreted over, there is something eternal about the man, and...
(The entire section is 2072 words.)