Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 445

One might ask whether The Enigma of Arrival is an autobiography in the form of a novel, or a novel in the form of an autobiography. It is both and neither. The writer who narrates it is clearly Naipaul—facts of his life correspond to facts of Naipaul’s— but he is...

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One might ask whether The Enigma of Arrival is an autobiography in the form of a novel, or a novel in the form of an autobiography. It is both and neither. The writer who narrates it is clearly Naipaul—facts of his life correspond to facts of Naipaul’s— but he is unnamed, titles of his other works are unnamed, and much is omitted, about Naipaul as well as about other “characters.” Naipaul is impatient of literary categories, but the title page calls the book a novel. The carefully shaped narrative is an inward one that ends where it begins, and much of the journeying within it is circular, the writer returning to central images, his perceptions of them shifting.

As the title suggests, a central theme of The Enigma of Arrival is the nature of “arrival” and the relations between journey and arriving. The title comes from a painting by the surrealist Giorgio de Chirico of a classical, Mediterranean scene of a wharf, walls, and gateways, and beyond them the mast of an ancient ship; the street in the foreground is deserted except for two muffled figures. “The scene is of desolation and mystery: it speaks of the mystery of arrival,” the writer thinks, and he entertains himself with a story in which the narrator arrives at the port, proceeds into the dangerous city, and nearly dies but escapes and finds his way back to the quayside. The ship is gone, though, and “the traveler has lived out his life.” At the time, the writer thought of the story as a release from the darkness of a novel he was writing about Africa, but he eventually came to see that it was really about his own writer’s journey.

The story Naipaul tells is one of recurrent expectations of and even experiences of “arrival.” The writer’s youthful expectations that his journey to England would culminate in a transforming “arrival” were dashed, at least for a very long time. The “arrival” at a new and deeply satisfying phase in life that he experienced in Wiltshire was not expected—and indeed it depended on an ability to cease looking for finality in arrival, to live with change. At the end of the novel, the writer discovers that his central motif had actually been death—another enigmatic arrival. Jack had died in the midst of life, raising himself painfully from his sickbed for a last holiday trip to the pub. In Jack’s handling of death and in the ceremony following his sister’s death, recounted in the last pages, the writer sees the grandeur of their lives’ modernity, that “we remade the world for ourselves.”

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