Cbj's Reviews > The Enigma of Arrival: A Novel in Five Sections

The Enigma of Arrival by V.S. Naipaul
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Apr 29, 11

bookshelves: indian-alienation
Read in October, 2010

** spoiler alert ** In A Wounded Civilization, V.S.Naipaul criticized Gandhi and Nehru for “their Hindu way of not seeing” – he wrote that neither Gandhi nor Nehru had any perspective about the places they visited and saw during their early days in England. Nobody would ever accuse V.S.Naipaul of the same ignorance after reading The Enigma of Arrival. In this autobiographical novel, Naipaul describes his idyllic but melancholic life in an old English manor in Wiltshire. The novel, divided into five parts begins with the narrator (Naipaul) acquiring a sense of the landscape of the old English manor and the town during his daily walks. Even though his life in the manor has just begun, Naipaul immediately gets a sense of the change and decay in Wiltshire. Naipaul expresses sadness at the narrowing in of a previously unfenced walkway by a barbed wire fence in his second year in Wiltshire which he sees as an encroachment of antiquity. Naipaul’s elaborate description of the manor and Wiltshire gave me the impression of a man trying to belong to or make sense of his adopted nation’s landscape (Naipaul’s ancestors were brought to the Caribbean to work in the plantations and it was in the Caribbean that Naipaul spent his early years until he traveled to Britain to become a writer). The Enigma of Arrival (named after a painting by Giorgio de Chirico) is also about that first journey to England which Naipaul describes with admirable honesty and self reflection.

In between the elaborate descriptions of the Wiltshire landscape, Naipaul also observes the occupants of the town and the manor, but only from a distance. But this could be a literary technique because even though Naipaul’s detached tone indicates that he does not seek companionship with the servants, the failed writer, the car-hire man and the landlord of the manor, all of them confide in him. Naipaul describes or rather infers minute and delicate details of their lives. The landlord is a man in a state of acedia. The servants, with their petty jealousies and failures have no future. The car-hire man finds solace in religion and a vagrant woman. A gardener kills his beautiful but unfaithful wife. He sees the occupants of Wiltshire and the manor as a people in retreat. People who found the city life too overwhelming and sought emotional refuge in the country life. All of them appear to be doomed. The tranquility and security of the manor is fragile. Naipaul seems to suggest that without proper authority and leadership England (represented by the manor which is a symbol of the old England whose antiquity is no longer sacrosanct) could plunge into decay. This feeling of insecurity about the fragility of social structures and the erosion of values was earlier explored by Naipaul in A Bend in the River in which Africa slowly plunges into anarchy.

But Enigma is not as grim as A Bend in the River. Before the end of his stay, Naipaul finds peace and fulfillment in the ways of the manor (though eventually he has to leave it). This is an interesting aspect of Naipaul’s writing. Naipaul never felt safe within his Hindu community in the Caribbean. He lived in a state of anomie and was ashamed of his community and its ways. Hence, this feeling of insecurity and lack of safety can be found in some of Naipaul’s other works whether it is through a lack of self worth (in The Mimic Men), travels to a new world (in Half a Life) or the threat of physical violence (in A Bend in the River).

Though the descriptions of the landscape (which forms a large part of the book) can be tedious and at times incomprehensible (for me atleast), Naipaul’s reflections about his own position in his adopted country and the impact of change on people make The Enigma of Arrival worth reading. It is a harrowing novel about the fragility of life and the inevitability of change which spares no one.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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Mark Heyne excellent comment. I still didn't enjoy the book, though!


message 2: by Cbj (new) - rated it 4 stars

Cbj Thanks, Mark. I identified with the main character. Why did you not enjoy the novel? It was a bit too bleak at times.


Mark Heyne Cbj wrote: "Thanks, Mark. I identified with the main character. Why did you not enjoy the novel? It was a bit too bleak at times."
I suppose I would rather read a younger immigrant like Hanif Kureshi and get his reactions. I think VS was a bit too much in awe of the 'mother country' to be really as incisive and critical as he can with another country.


message 4: by Cbj (new) - rated it 4 stars

Cbj OK. Naipaul was extremely critical of England in "Magic Seeds". Even though the main character Willie Chandran contemplates the benignity of the tree (and the overall view) outside his window after he comes back to England, Naipaul is severely critical of the working class and dole culture and especially working class women. He is pretty incisive and critical in "Magic Seeds" especially towards the end of the novel. I tend to think of Naipaul as a bit of an establishment figure but he writes with so much conviction that it is pretty hard to brush him off.

Have you read "Magic Seeds"? Some people think of it as an inferior Naipaul novel, but I really enjoyed it.


Mark Heyne I hadn't heard of that one, thanks, i look forward to reading it!


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