The Enigma of Arrival

by V. S. Naipaul

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 734

The Enigma of Arrival is a meditative narrative of the discoveries and changing perceptions of its author as he lives for ten years at a cottage in rural Wiltshire, in England. Learning to see the countryside and its seasonal alterations, and discovering aspects of himself in the people he meets, the writer finds himself feeling a harmony with place that contrasts sharply with the dislocation and estrangement that have marked most of his previous life, both as a child in Trinidad and as a student and eventually a successful writer in England. For the first time, he is able to accept the realities of change and death.

The first of the novel’s five sections, “Jack’s Garden,” tells parts of the story of these ten years. Jack is a man the writer initially sees through his expectation that someone working in his garden in rural England is a figure deeply rooted in his landscape, an emanation of the countryside evoked by English literary tradition—and therefore someone quite unlike the writer himself, who, though he has been based in England for two decades, still feels a stranger there, still plagued by a rawness of his nerves. On the contrary, he learns, Jack has not always lived there. His garden is something he has created himself, his life there a conscious choice, his activities not “traditional or instinctive after all, but . . . part of Jack’s way.” Jack’s garden teaches the writer about the seasons, and Jack becomes an image of a man who has created fulfillment in the place to which he has come. The place is marked by change: Jack dies, new people move in, new farm managers carry out a scheme of drastic modernization, a worker on the new farm murders his wife, others die. Yet though he must learn the falseness of his early judgment that “in this historical part of England” everything was “a kind of perfection, perfectly evolved,” the writer is also able to feel that he has received the gift of “a second childhood of seeing and learning,” one in which he can see not so much decay and arbitrary loss as “flux and the constancy of change.”

The second section, “A Journey,” recalls first the writer’s initial “arrival” in England, an experience marked by suppressions rather than revelations of self, by blindnesses and ignorance rather than by sight and growing knowledge. As an aspiring writer convinced by his colonial education of the superiority of English culture, the teenager who left Trinidad with an Oxford scholarship clung adamantly to an image of the writer as aloof and knowing and to the writer’s “material” as metropolitan sophistication—the lives described by such novelists as Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley. Thus he buried all that embarrassed him, omitted painful experiences of race from his writer’s journal, and was unable to ask the questions that could have helped him connect with the lives of the people he met in his first London boardinghouse. Eventually he came to see that his “material” had in fact been there, in that boardinghouse, that “in 1950 in London I was at the beginning of that great movement of peoples that was to take place in the second half of the twentieth century.” The rest of “The Journey” traces his development as a writer, bringing him to the crisis that had overcome him shortly before his residency in Wiltshire—a crisis in which he had first believed himself to be sufficiently secure as a writer to leave the England in which he had never felt at home, only to realize that England was after all the location of his audience and his employment. As “Jack’s Garden” shows, he had now learned to see with his own eyes; he was ready for that second childhood.

“Ivy” and “Rooks” return to the Wiltshire experience and the writer’s deepening vision of five of its central characters: the landlord, managers, and gardener of the manor on which the writer’s cottage is located, and Bray, a car-hire man whose father had worked for the manor. “Rooks” ends with the illness that compelled the writer to move to a drier location. A conclusion, “The Ceremony of Farewell,” describes the Hindu ceremony that followed the death of his sister in Trinidad and the part these events played in the first phase of his writing of the novel.

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