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With the death of V. S. Naipaul last August, it becomes more important than ever to reflect on his significance as a writer and critic of contemporary civilization. As Naipaul told me at a conference on postcolonial fiction at the University of Tulsa, he was “not like the others” reading their works that day. He was, indeed, not like the others, as his complex novel The Enigma of Arrival makes clear. That novel has nothing to do with the narrow interest in identity politics that suffused the fiction of his time. With his death, one can appreciate all the more clearly Naipaul’s difference and the great testing of courage and faith that are at the heart of all that he wrote.
The Enigma of Arrival is a compelling treatment of one of literature’s perennial themes: man’s recognition of his mortality and his discovery of the spiritual resources to cope with that knowledge. In this it is a profoundly traditional work of art, one that can be compared with the classic works of Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Tolstoy, and Mann. What is original in Naipaul’s novel is the presentation of the discovery of faith against the backdrop of a contemporary culture within which enduring truths have increasingly come to be dismissed. It is at once a familiar rendering of a universal spiritual journey and a strikingly original treatment of that journey in the midst of a radically faithless era.
The autobiographical novel recounts a period in the life of a narrator who is largely indistinguishable from Naipaul. It is important, however, to recognize that Naipaul’s intention was not to write an intimate account of personal matters but rather—as he said of his earlier attempt at autobiography in A Way in the World—to create a “character who has roughly my background” and who would record “stages in one’s evolution.” That approach had little to do with what Naipaul elsewhere termed the “quirks” of life: the comings and goings of acquaintances, the reception of one’s work in the marketplace, or the details of the author’s personal life.
Yet certainly the protagonist in Enigma is a version of the author: As in the novel, the real-life author moved to a cottage in Wiltshire in late 1970s (Teasel Cottage on the estate of Wilsford Manor). As in the novel, Naipaul at the time was recovering from a serious illness (bronchial pneumonia). And as in the novel, after more than a decade at Teasel Cottage, Naipaul moved to a dairyman’s cottage in nearby Salterton, a rustic dwelling he converted into a habitable abode.
In the novel, the death of a younger sister, corresponding to Naipaul’s sister Sati, precipitates the narrator’s spiritual crisis and creative blockage. In real life, it was not just Sati’s death but that of his younger brother Shiva as well that led to Naipaul’s extraordinary contemplation of mortality. A successful author in his own right, Shiva passed away three years before the publication of The Enigma of Arrival.
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Enigma is focused quite strictly on a single thematic concern: man’s determination to pursue the truth, and thereby restore justice, in the face of illness, emotional suffering, and advancing age. The narrator’s life might best be regarded as a projection of the impossible ideal of total discipline and fidelity to art that the author wanted to follow but, given the limitations of spirit and flesh, did not succeed in achieving. At its core, the enigma that Naipaul unravels is a realization of human weakness—made all the more painful in the case of an artist of great talent and ambition—and the consequent discovery of spiritual realities of a much higher order than that of human ambition.
The redemptive quality of the novel is implicit in its title, borrowed from an early surrealist painting by Giorgio de Chirico, who in turn had borrowed the phrase from the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. The narrator of Naipaul’s novel states that upon seeing the painting for the first time he immediately felt that the title “referred to something in my own experience.” With its depiction of an ancient Mediterranean seaport, as the author interprets it, the painting suggests to the narrator the story of a man who loses his way but finds redemption, but only toward the end of his productive life.
As a moral bildungsroman, The Enigma of Arrival proceeds from the waning of life recorded in the first section, entitled “Jack’s Garden,” to a troubling sense of flux in “The Journey” and reflections on the past in “Ivy” and “Books,” to the paradoxical arrival at rebirth in the final section, “The Ceremony of Farewell.”
“Jack’s Garden” portrays the mental life of a writer burdened by a sense of decay and impairment. He is not so much “at work” at this point as struggling to find a path back to his work, and as such he is preoccupied by an overriding sense of stasis. All about him life seems stalled or in decline. The titular garden, so well-tended while the estate gardener, Jack, was alive, is now overgrown and all but indiscernible. Jack had imposed a sense of order that the author perceived as “traditional, natural, emanations of the landscape, things that country people did.” With Jack’s death, this illusion is dispelled. Neither Jack’s widow, who soon moves away, nor any of his neighbors on the estate care anything for what he had created, and Jack’s garden quickly goes to seed. The order that Jack imposed is not merely something that “country people do” but an act of love emanating from Jack himself. The narrator comes to realize that Jack had understood, as the narrator does now, “how tenuous, really, the hold of all these people had been on the land they worked and lived in,” and he discovers “with something like religion” in “life and man . . . the true mysteries.”
At this point, Naipaul’s pilgrim sees much, but not the entire truth. “The bravest and most religious thing about [Jack’s] life,” he tells us, “was his way of dying: the way he had asserted, at the very end, the primacy not of what was beyond life, but life itself.” Occurring near the beginning of the narrator’s residency at the manor, Jack’s death is a seminal event in the novel, one that the narrator returns to again and again in an effort to comprehend his own mortality, but it is not one that immediately confers a full measure of understanding.
The second part of the novel flashes back to the period before the author’s arrival at the manor cottage, including his travel from Trinidad to England on a university scholarship, his stay in a London boardinghouse, his fruitless attempts to adapt the British novel of manners to his needs, and his flirtation with Angela, the Italian boardinghouse manager (corresponding in real life to the Maltese manager of the Earl’s Court boardinghouse where Naipaul stayed before going up to Oxford). This section has everything to do with the protagonist’s quest for acceptance in his adopted land. Nothing comes of his efforts at this point, in part because he lacks the “more direct, less unprejudiced way of looking” that he gains as a mature writer. At this early stage, he is not really seeing England as it truly is. Having lived with a fantasy for so long, he is like the Spanish in the New World, who see only gold or evidences of gold without perceiving the true riches that exist before their eyes.
The force of will that has buoyed the narrator’s rise from colonial schoolroom to Oxford scholarship to publishing success is associated here with the broader conundrum of modern civilization, in particular with its illusion of perfectibility and attendant amplification of pride and ego. In his preoccupation with “arrival” driven by sheer will, the narrator has been drawn into a dangerous state of mind that is all too common in our era: a condition of relativism according to which, as Alasdair MacIntyre has written, “all evaluative and normative judgments can be no more than expressions of attitude and feeling.” Under this assumption, society is reduced to an “emotivist culture,” a culture that Naipaul captures perfectly in Enigma with his depiction of the delusional pride of Brenda and Les, the estate managers who succeed Jack; the artistic fraudulence of the landlord; and the self-indulgence and betrayal of Michael Allen, the young businessman whose short-lived affair with Brenda leads to her demise, and other characters. While these corrupt figures are contrasted with the more reflective ones of the narrator and his double, Jack, they also represent a milieu into which the narrator might well have sunk were it not for the novel’s culminating action of redemption. Brenda and Les in particular stand for the realm of unreflective physicality that appears so often in Naipaul’s fiction, a condition that the author associates with his childhood in Trinidad and with the developing world generally. What may not be so well appreciated is the extent to which he finds this form of raw materialism replicated in societies like Britain and the U.S. as those societies lose sight of their traditions and values.
At this point in the novel, as he approaches the crisis resulting from the unexpected news of the death of his sister, the narrator has still not grasped the full reality of his condition. Like so many around him, he is forcing his way through life on the strength of will and ego. Much of this false self-assurance consists of what MacIntyre sees as the relativistic confidence of modern culture in its drift from one cultural premise to another. As one who assumes he possesses, in MacIntyre’s words, the “ability to understand everything from human culture and history, no matter how apparently alien,” Naipaul’s narrator shows signs of becoming extraordinarily modern and rootless, since “there is no such scheme of belief within which such an individual is able to find him or herself at home.” This alienation manifests itself as a cynical relativism in which the subject views reality as insubstantial, impermanent, and pointless, precisely the terms in which Naipaul wrote of his youth in Trinidad and his life at Oxford and in London. It is not surprising that the narrator’s creative efforts in Enigma have stalled. By his modernist reckoning, given its assumption of the interchangeable quality of cultures, all his sacrifices for art are bound to be forgotten soon after his death, and indeed before death. This being the case, why make the effort? Again, Jack’s example enters into the narrator’s thinking.
From this willful and self-reliant condition, Naipaul’s protagonist suffers a profound humbling as he is sickened and brought to the threshold of madness and death. He is then miraculously restored to life and elevated to an appreciation of possibilities beyond any he could have previously imagined. Like the seemingly doomed figure of the Arthurian knight Gawain, the mythic figure of redemption with whom the author was much preoccupied at the time, Naipaul regains his way only after and as a consequence of a willingness to risk all in the service of truth. It is not just the Gawain myth but the entire tapestry of culture and society of the West of England that grounds the narrator’s reflections. As the postcolonial critic Jasbir Jain points out, the narrator’s development is contrasted not just with the failed examples of Brenda and Les but also with the vision of terror and chaos depicted in a Doomsday painting in nearby Salisbury’s Parish Church of St. Thomas Becket. As the writer endures disillusionment, anxiety, and depression, he is led to revise his conception of his purpose on earth and the nature of the world in which he lives. In the end his life is transformed, and he is empowered to proceed with confidence.
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Enigma plays out against the backdrop of postwar Britain from 1950 to 1985, a period of British history marked by economic decline and social disarray. At one point the narrator recounts his arrival and first months spent at a London boardinghouse during which he is cast among an assortment of impoverished immigrants and where he is befriended by the flirtatious boardinghouse manager, a woman who later reappears as a blowsy middle-aged figure awed by Naipaul’s success. London may be a great cosmopolitan center and the historical capital of a vast empire, but Naipaul’s initial experience of it was that of a collection of decaying rooming houses occupied by a doubtful collection of improvident individuals. In place of the Britain of his dreams, a place of learning, decorum, and wealth where he would soon join the ranks of established writers, he faces a deeply unsettling postwar milieu in which the barbarians seem to rule.
As Naipaul wrote in “Conrad’s Darkness and Mine,” one of his most revealing autobiographical essays from the period of his residence at Wilsford Manor: “The new politics, the curious reliance of men on institutions they were yet working to undermine, the simplicity of beliefs and the hideous simplicity of actions, the corruption of causes, half-made societies that seemed doomed to remain half-made: these were the things that began to preoccupy me.” In place of the educated Englishmen he had expected to meet, men and women engaged in creative, scholarly, and professional endeavors of the highest order, he encounters only tired novelists from an earlier era or second-rate journalists publishing uninspired work as a means of bare survival. The great civilization he had hoped to join and serve seems to have collapsed from within. As Naipaul noted in a 1998 Paris Review interview: “It is in a bad, bad way in England. It has ceased to exist.” The seemingly impossible task of restoring the ideals of that civilization from the limited resources of his own experience and education falls on Naipaul himself.
It is not just the scruffy migrant neighborhoods of London that distress the new arrival. His years at Oxford prove equally disheartening. In place of a single-minded devotion to learning, Oxford offers what strikes the narrator as a middling education amid a cliquish atmosphere that excludes scholarship students like himself. All of Britain, it seems, has degenerated into the squalid, instinctual, self-centered conditions that Naipaul finds in the boardinghouse, and while the focus is on Britain, there is enough of New York and continental Europe in the novel to confirm that the decay is more widespread. The Western civilization in which the narrator had been educated and on which he has pinned his hopes seems to have disintegrated sometime before his arrival, leaving him as among the few defenders of a moral order that appears not to wish to be defended.
Buttressed against this decline is the writer’s unshakable faith in the ideals of Western civilization. Even as his contemporaries in Britain and America scorn their precious cultural legacy, that legacy continues to manifest itself both in the institutions of law and society and in the cultural monuments that remain. As Naipaul once stated at a UNESCO conference: “All old civilizations are superior to younger ones. That is why I have been happiest in Shropshire.” That statement, which is echoed in Enigma in the narrator’s love of Wiltshire, was likely misunderstood by many in the audience. It is not a blind adherence to tradition that Naipaul promulgates but an objective evaluation of the importance of inherited belief systems and the difficulty of regaining equally compelling systems of order once they are lost.
Southwest England is an appropriate setting for this narrative of death and rebirth. Within a short walk from the manor cottage lie Stonehenge and nearby Winchester Castle, one of many locations associated with the legendary site of King Arthur’s court (as it is in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur). There could be no better location in which to explore the narrator’s “sense of antiquity,” his “feeling for the age of the earth and the oldness of man’s possession of it.” It is not surprising that when asked about the qualities he most admired, Naipaul replied: “Honour (where it is personal, rather than the code of a class or group); reliability.” Those are enduring virtues of an old civilization, as opposed to the self-indulgence and excess masquerading as tolerance and personal freedom that many contemporaries might prize.
Given the scale of decline in the postwar era, the narrator’s journey toward redemption in Enigma is slow and difficult. In part this is because, like all heroic questers before him, he is necessarily uncertain of his way. It is a dilemma that Naipaul has recounted many times: the expectation that as a writer he had only to adopt contemporary literary models relevant to his own experience and proceed from there, only to find that, within a modern civilization that has scorned traditions of faith and liberty, none exist. Only by great effort and after many false steps can he fashion an aesthetic that responds in an honest and uncorrupted manner to the modern world.
In this regard, it is crucial to recognize that Naipaul’s originality has less to do with his colonial background, a culture that he indeed considers empty and uninformed, than it does with his discovery that the cosmopolitan center itself has rejected its cultural inheritance. Although it produced the comic masterpiece A House for Mr. Biswas, Naipaul’s interest in colonial experience per se was relatively short-lived and resulted for the most part in lesser works such as Miguel Street, The Mystic Masseur, Guerillas, and A Flag on the Island. His later works, including A Bend in the River and The Enigma of Arrival, deal to an equal or greater extent with the relinquishment of authority on the part of those who originate from the cosmopolitan center. Critics have often taxed Naipaul for his supposed attachment to imperialism and all that this is meant to suggest, while in fact Naipaul’s later works emanate from a profound disenchantment with the moral and spiritual condition of Britain and America and with representatives of the West who as high-minded “saviors” of the downtrodden reintroduce their corrupted ideals to the colonial setting. Nowhere is this distress more evident than in The Enigma of Arrival.
One small incident illustrates the pervasiveness of decline. Returning from his river walk to his cottage, the narrator encounters two German “vandals,” as he perceives them to be, removing rotted logs from the ruins of Jack’s walled garden. The incident is especially disturbing because it epitomizes all that has happened in contemporary Britain. Jack’s garden, itself only a makeshift effort to retain a semblance of order, has been abandoned by his successors, those caretakers like Brenda and Les who are guided by the prospect of short-term gratification and by the tawdry fantasies that define what form that gratification should take. Now, with the arrival of the vandals, the nadir has been reached as Victorian enterprise has been reduced to base scavenging on the part of two itinerant youths of foreign descent. The incident moves the narrator to voice an impassioned lament over the loss of “the great days of the manor”—a time when “ideas of beauty and workmanship” reigned, not the instinct “to hasten decay, to loot, to reduce to junk.”
Significantly, the narrator does not blame the vandals themselves for this demise but the educated class, those tasked with wielding authority but who lack the will to act. Imperial Britain, which once ruled a vast colonial realm, had instilled an ideal of civilization both at home and abroad, but now Britain seems to have devolved into an enervated society of loutish and uneducated citizens, and the colonies have long since gained their independence, often, at least in the short term, to their detriment. It is a process that the narrator perceives taking place not just in Britain but in nearly every developed country: failing to cherish their patrimony, these societies discard their ancestral inheritance. Everywhere he looks, the narrator sees evidence of a relinquishment of authority and a resultant debasement of character. A series of female servants hired by the manor’s housekeeper, Mrs. Phillips, proves to be unfailingly incompetent and emotionally unstable. A particularly distasteful development is that the estate’s holdings are gradually sold off and enclosed with barbed wire, thus depriving not just the owner but the narrator and others of free enjoyment of the land.
One might expect that the narrator, a man who “had lived with the idea of change,” would stoically accept these changes, but in fact the selling off of the land, combined with his growing awareness of his own mortality, engenders an intense sensation of grief. The novel’s final section, “The Ceremony of Farewell,” recounts the greatest crisis of Naipaul’s life, as in his early fifties he is overwhelmed with thoughts of death and suffers severe depression. It is here apparent that “Death and the way of handling it,” not just the personal fate of one individual but the survival of civilization, is the controlling theme of this complex novel. The event that propels the narrator out of his melancholy and back to the effort of writing is the death of his younger sister. Returning to Trinidad for the religious ceremony following cremation, the narrator connects the many strands he has worked over for decades since his departure from Trinidad on a university scholarship. He finds that he is much closer to the end than to the beginning of his life. Incapable of beginning anew, as he had done before following a series of false starts, he must accept the damage that time has wrought.
For nearly a decade the narrator has resided at the manor cottage, which has fulfilled his need for quiet, privacy, and order, and his daily walks have restored his emotional and physical health. His sense of connection with the Salisbury plain has buttressed the appealing illusion of order. Ultimately, however, the narrator must face the fact that all earthly existence is radically imperfect. (The German vandals’ ransacking the ruins of Jack’s garden are a perfect trope for this condition.) His residence at the manor estate is a temporary one, just as Jack’s had been; his “garden” of literary creation is subject to neglect and ruin, even as Jack’s modest effort had been. One’s productive period as a writer is limited to a half century or so at best. His physical existence, like that of all human beings, is brief and uncertain. How does the narrator or any human being confront these daunting facts? Ultimately, the enigma is that life cannot be redeemed by way of the escapism of Brenda’s lurid fantasies or even Jack’s noble exertion of will. What is required is grace, and with it nothing less than the extraordinary feat of acceptance on the part of man.
At the end of Enigma, the narrator is shown “life and man as the mystery, the true religion of men, the grief and the glory.” That statement, from the penultimate sentence of the novel, is followed by an even more remarkable assertion: that at the very moment of facing the reality of death, the author’s soul overflowed with new life. At that moment he “laid aside my drafts and hesitations and began to write very fast about Jack and his garden”—beginning, in other words, the novel he has just concluded with this affirmation of a purposeful and benevolent order of creation.
To appreciate fully the importance of this moment, one must consider the extraordinary depth of Naipaul’s dedication to writing. From the age of eleven Naipaul was certain he had been marked as one who would achieve literary success, and when success first arrives, with the composition of A House for Mr. Biswas, the transcendent joy of writing transports the writer to a higher plane of being. As he recalled in his foreword to the 1983 reissue of Biswas, “nothing had prepared me for the liberation and absorption of this extended literary labour, the joy of allowing fantasy to play on stored experience, the joy of the comedy that so naturally offered itself, the joy of language.” It is that level of joy, in effect a perception of the meaningfulness and order of creation, that Naipaul has regained in the composition of The Enigma of Arrival. But what both the real-life author Naipaul and his fictional persona gain is more than a resurgence of creative power: it is a step beyond the triumph of Biswas and a discovery of an order of creation beyond the individual powers of the artist.
The true enigma lies in the “exchange” that always exists between triumph and loss, success and failure, freedom and constriction. Thinking of his lost childhood, the narrator recognizes he has found a “second, happier childhood as it were, the second arrival” that brings a fuller perception of the beauty of creation. While it would be inaccurate to characterize this engagement in Judeo-Christian terms, it is clear that the transformative moment the narrator is describing is the response of a religious sensibility to the presence of illness and death. Moreover, the sudden transformation that the narrator recounts, immediately shifting from deep despair to the sort of creative labor he identifies with life, indicates an underlying spiritual rebirth. Rather than face defeat at the hands of death, he finds that his appointment with death ennobles and inspires him. As in the Gawain myth, his encounter with mortality is not the destruction it had seemed but instead the true fount of being. Having faced down the fears he “had been contemplating at night, in my sleep,” he now gains a full measure of life.
What emerges in the novel’s final section is the picture of a human being who faces his personal mortality and the potential demise of his civilization not just with courage but with the support of a redemptive faith. The Enigma of Arrival is a work that refuses to surrender to the deathly culture that encircled Naipaul during the quarter century in which he contemplated its composition. It is a work of art that meticulously records an aging author’s doubts concerning his personal health and the future of “a world in decay,” and one that finds a way forward in a blazing moment of redemption. Now that Naipaul is gone, the grand trial that he recounted in The Enigma of Arrival becomes all the more affecting. V. S. Naipaul was an author of great courage and vision, and his greatest accomplishment was a profound understanding of the necessity of faith and tradition in the face of a pervasive cultural decline. ♦
Jeffrey Folks taught for thirty years in universities in Europe, America, and Japan.
Photo: Agence Opale / Alamy Stock Photo
 V. S. Naipaul, “The Art of Fiction,” interview by Jonathan Rosen and Tarun Tejpal, Paris Review 154 (Fall 1998), https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1069/v-s-naipaul-the-art-of-fi....
 V. S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), 98. All references in the text are to this edition.
 Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice, Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 343.
 Ibid., 385.
 Ibid., 395.
 Jasbir Jain, “Landscapes of the Mind: Unraveling Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival,” Journal of Caribbean Literature 5.2 (2008): 115–24.
 V. S. Naipaul, “Conrad’s Darkness and Mine,” Literary Occasions: Essays, ed. Pankaj Mishra (New York: Knopf, 2003), 162–80.
 Naipaul, “The Art of Fiction.”
 Quoted in Patrick French, The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul (New York: Knopf, 2008), 403.
 French, The World Is What It Is, 404.
 V. S. Naipaul, “Foreword to A House for Mr. Biswas,” Literary Occasions: Essays, ed., Pankaj Mishra (New York: Knopf, 2003), 134.