The Enigma of Arrival by Sir V.S. Naipaul is a novel in five sections published in 1987 based on real life events of the writer during his time in Wiltshire and his recollections of the past, during his emigration to New York from Trinidad. The late writer and Nobel Prize winner was in his 40’s when he wrote this meta-fictional and meta-narrative novel. This is very crucial to unlocking and unwinding the mystery of the novel, because it is a genre less work. Most of the avid admirers of V.S. Naipaul, consider this work to be his masterpiece because it gives them a look at what a writer like Vidiadhar goes through while getting through a usual day.
I certainly don’t have any contradictions to the claim made by many bibliophiles who regard The Enigma of Arrival to be his best work but what I do have certain qualms about is the identity of this work as a ‘novel’. There is, even in its most fantastical plummets, nothing fictional about this work because it lacks the linearity of the novel form. It is what it is, an autobiographical work, which gathers pace and beauty from the psychosis of a man and his minute observations of life and decay rather than a sense of a story which has a beginning, middle and end. The book feels like a hypnotic evocation of a man’s uprootedness from oneself, one’s own family and one’s sense of life.
The novel begins with a strange and vigorous observation of the pathways in the countryside where Naipaul lives. A tour de force of prose writing, where we see the narrator completely submerged into the exteriors of his surroundings, and the words begin to roll out with such dramatic tension and life, that the inner dilemmas and turpitudes colour the vision of his eye. Naipaul sees things with such clarity, that one is dismayed and shocked by the sheer flow of his bitterness; the bitterness which he seems to roll into the leaves, the roads, the willows, the bales of hay, the water meadows, the slopes uphill and downhill diving into the verges of the water and back to the houses lining the countryside, ancient and desolate by the loss of their colonial past.
Naipaul finds himself dispirited upon the realisation that this British world, this world of the ‘other’ is not the same as he had visualised in his childhood days, the drama of Dickens, the historical vistas of Edwardian England, were all missing. At first, Naipaul feels that this is a land unchanging, unmoving, and unfeeling but he slowly realises with the passage of time, that this world of his is constantly moving in a flux, transforming from one phase to another, its lives delicately moving, flowing and breaking apart.
Some of the most admirable moments of the novel come across when Naipaul is moving for the first time in an airplane from Trinidad. The far away view of his small island, where he had left behind his family, his home, his memories and his everything, everything he had possessed at that juncture of his life.
This book cannot and should not be recognised as a novel, it is a piece of wonderful literature and brilliant prose writing, but to call it a novel is restricting and shallow of those who have labelled it. It is a real life work, in which Naipaul is the man inside, ensorcelling the reader with his benumbing and painful observations recorded in a prose which is extraordinary. I would go to the extent of saying this, to call this work a novel, is devastatingly cruel and horrid as at that very specific metamorphosis of his life, Naipaul was living with his wife Patricia Ann Hale, his remarkably tolerant, brilliant and loving wife who copied his works for him, restarted a job just to secure Naipaul in his writings, and perhaps is the woman behind Naipaul’s success. Sadly, in this remarkable book, there is not even a faint shadow of her hiding in the mist, and that is where the book becomes almost despairingly tragic and void. Throughout The Enigma of Arrival, it feels like half a book, and not a full one yet remarkably as all great works, it achieves its greatness from its emptiness, its lack of completion and lack of fullness.
I also feel a bit morally downtrodden as the secret behind ‘her’ absence portrays a darker truth, of Naipaul and the multiple painful verbosity he inflicted on his wife, and how he detested her and blamed her for his own faults and weaknesses as a human being. It is a fact, that Naipaul abused her verbally, painfully commenting on her sexual faculty and also he admitted in his later years, that he might have killed his wife, recorded majorly in the biography by Patrick French.
On a side note, if you wish to become a writer, this book is inevitable for aspiring writers as it reaches the reader how profound prose is composed and how observation gives way to endless fecundity in the form of words.
The work contains some of the best written sentences in Naipaul’s literary body of works. It is more of a masterpiece because it showed the psychological mechanism of a genius behind A House for Mr. Biswas and A Bend in The River. Perhaps that is why this work is considered so prolific whereas without his masterpieces, it wouldn’t have received much attention as a novel, therefore, the point is, this book is a labelled as a ‘novel’ because it carried the same writer’s name who wrote such astonishing books, if that wouldn’t have been the case, the reality would have been otherwise, befuddling, extraordinary yet bewildering.
The Enigma of Arrival is a deeply lonely and depraved book, a book which has scarcely any compassion, any colour or any reassurance. It is a solitary and dry book which brutally wounds the reader, profoundly diminishing with its lack of spring, all it has between its covers is the endless cycle of tension, loss, grief and mortality moving endlessly again and again until broken by death.