A review of The Enigma of Arrival by VS Naipaul

Neither memoir nor story, the descriptive detail is fine, but it lacks any overall movement, is slow going and painful to read, and ultimately leaves the reader with nothing more than a brief impression of the mental state of the narrator and a very detailed understanding of a single cottage, a single manor, and single place. 

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Enigma of Arrival
by VS Naipaul
Picador, 2002, pb
Originally published by Penguin 1987
ISBN 0-330-48715-9

Nobel Prize winner VS Naipaul is well known for his statements about the “death of the novel” – his criticisms of plot, character and a forward moving narrative structure. His recently re-released 1886 book, The Enigma of Arrival, which he labels a ‘novel,’ proceeds with very limited plot, characterisation and a structure that takes it form much more closely from memoir and even diary writing than a formal narrative. That the work has been widely praised is certain. The dust jacket contains gushing accolades from no less than Anthony Burgess, Bernard Levin and Jan Morris. Although the writing is richly descriptive, it is hard to see The Enigma of Arrival as a novel at all, but rather a self-indulgent account of a short period of Naipaul’s own life. Of course all novelists take their material partly from their own life, but Naipaul never refines this vision of his into something universal, never pulls together anything more than the most internally focused and concurrently self-aggrandising and depressing vision.

There are 5 chapters, or “sections” as Naipaul describes them. The second section, “The Journey” follows Naipaul as he leaves Trinidad for England for the first time. The final section, “The Ceremony of Farewell” is really an epilogue, although much of the book reads like an epilogue. The other sections take place in a small Wiltshire village during a period where the narrator rented a cottage, worked on a number of other books, and had a serious spell of illness. During this time he observed, from the detailed perspective of an outsider, the people, and natural world around him. The narrator himself is so obviously and clearly Naipaul that it is impossible to see him as a character, and although we find out much about him through his first peron observations, there is little of formal development of this person aside from these impressions. We know little about his life in between his travel from Trinidad to England and his later stay in Wiltshire. It is as if the reader were being asked to rely on our understanding of Naipaul’s own body of work, referred to, his unwritten biography and his considerable reputation to understand who this narrator is.

As the narrator’s contact with the people around him remains cursory, we don’t really get to know any of the other characters either, except in a very superficial sense. We hear a little gossip, and learn much about the clothing they wear, but aside from a few rather cliched surmises by the narrator, we learn almost nothing. Jack, a man with a whole chapter dedicated to him, is a quaint farm labourer, wont to work with his shirt off and devoted to his garden until his health fails. The descriptions of Jack’s features, his waxen face, his clothing and his connection to his plot are some of the best pieces of writing in the book, but we see it as a passing observation by the only real character – the narrator:

“His eyes were far away. It was his eyes, oddly obstreperous, oddly jumpy, that gave him away, that said he was after all a farm worker, that in another setting, in a more crowded or competitive place, he might have sunk. And the discovery was a little disconcerting, because (after I had got rid of the idea that he was a remnant of old peasantry) I had found in thatbeard of his, a man with a high idea of himself, a man who had out of principle turned away from other styles of life.” (29-30)

Other characters are equally glossed over, with detailed surmises about who they are and how they see the world taken solely from the clothing they wear, the manner in which they walk or talk, and the odd greeting or bit of news. There is Brenda and Les who provide a bit of local colour and even some minor plot material with Brenda’s scandal and sudden murder, but all we know of them is this:

“And that took some understanding, that people like Brenda and Les, who were so passionate, so concerned with their individuality, their style, the quality of their skin and hair, it took some understanding that people who were so proud and flaunting in one way should be prepared in another corner of their hearts or souls or minds to go down several notches and be servants.” (70)

One begins to learn more about the prejudices of the narrator with each character who joins the reminiscence but ultimately the characterisation of the Phillipses, Brenda and Les, Pitton the gardener, the landlord, Bray and the failed writer Alan (who at least gets some degree of dialogue and his own voice) is no more in depth than one of those games you play on a bus or at a cafe where you look at a person and try to guess their lives and motivations by their clothes and manner.

The natural world is well described, in great detail and often beautiful prose:

“The river curved here. On the opposite bank the down ended abruptly in a wooded cliff, giving a great depth, and a hint of surrounding forest, to the river colour. There was also a new channel here from the bare down, a spring breaking out of the chalk and quickly turning into a noisy cascade. So that again, in this neat, tame, smooth landscape, with a bare green-white down and with a river a few feet deep divided neatly into numbered beats, there was a reminder of the unpredictable force of water.” (226-7)

I suspect that this may be the main source of the praise for this book. The prose moves very slowly and the narrator gives this single piece of the world such detailed attention, viewing it from a number of different seasonal angles, rendering it, like an impressionistic painter, in different hues and at different times of the day. So much detail though, without sufficient characterisation becomes more a kind of catalogue of botany – heavy, dull and difficult to wade through. Although the narrator takes some delight in his natural world, the overall effect is of lassitude – of a kind of personal ennui, which it is impossible to avoid feeling as a reader. This is compounded by his own stated melancholy, which permeates the book:

“…I began to be awakened by thoughts of death, the end of things; and sometimes not even by thoughts so specific, no even by fear rational or fantastic, but by a great melancholy. This melancholy penetrated my mind while I slept; and then, when I awakened in response to its prompting, I was so poisoned by it, made so much not a doer (as men must be, every day of their lives), that it took the best part of the day to shake it off. And that wasted or dark day added to the gloom of preparing for night.” (375)

The more interesting theme, of displacement – of trying to find a new home and acquiring belonging could have lifted this work out of the morass of self-indulgent reflection into the universal, creating a good story. This is certainly touched upon in “The Journey” section, which seems to have little connection with the rest of the book. The importance of this theme is hinted at by the book’s title, and the “Enigma of Arrival” painting by de Chirico which inspires Naipaul:

“My story was to be set in classical times, in the Mediterranean. My narrator would write plainly, without any attempt at period style or historical explanation of th eperiod. He would arrive…at that classical port with the walls and gateways like cut-outs. He would walk past those two muffled figures on the quayside. he wouldmove 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…” (106)

The book would be a meditation on the journey of life, on death, on the dislocation of travel and exile and how we recreate those places in our own images. Presumably this “novel” The Enigma of Arrival, the very work he is talking about writing, is the work itself. With a decent unifying story, and the kind of characterisation which Naipaul is certainly capable of, it could have been a powerful piece of work. As it stands, The Enigma of Arrival, never quite comes together as the surreal and beautiful tale of a traveller. It is too self-obsessed. Too much a portrait of the artist as a young and then old man and very internally focused. There is too much pastoral, too much surmising about other people without actually letting us get to know them, and finally too much subjectivity to allow the richness of the theme to develop. We certainly feel the sadness of the narrator, and we clearly see, in great detail, what he sees as he walks out day by day, speaks to a few people, observes change, but we never realise anything more than that. Things appear, bloom and decay, and people appear, bloom and decay. Britain too has begun to decay, and indeed the narrator is also decaying.

For true fans of VS Naipaul, this book forms an important biographical piece of his work. If you aren’t familiar with Naipaul however, this is not a book I would recommend. Neither memoir nor story, the descriptive detail is fine, but it lacks any overall movement, is slow going and painful to read, and ultimately leaves the reader with nothing more than a brief impression of the mental state of the narrator and a very detailed understanding of a single cottage, a single manor, and single place.

For more information on The Enigma of Arrival visit: The Enigma of Arrival: A Novel