This review was originally published on Goodreads. I have adapted it here with minimal modification.
Over the course of five sections, The Enigma of Arrival draws an autobiographical portrait of an unnamed narrator that strongly resembles the author. Like Naipaul, the narrator is ethnically Hindu, raised in Trinidad, and schooled in England. He recounts his life on a decaying country estate near Salisbury, Wiltshire. Most of the novel focuses on the characters that populate the manor and the changes that the manor undergoes while the narrator lives there. This narrative is supplemented with recollections from the narrator’s life as an immigrant and young writer.
The Enigma of Arrival finds Naipaul in a sentimental mood. While the narrator’s voice retains much of the hardness that characterizes Naipaul’s other works, it also demonstrates a wistfulness about the past and the setting in which the narrator presently finds himself in.
Naipaul is a tough novelist. He is hard on his characters. He assesses them bleakly, even cruelly. Sometimes the line he takes towards his characters seems to be a mask for himself. Naipaul doesn’t easily give himself up to scrutiny.
And yet, in The Enigma of Arrival Naipaul makes plain the thematic thrust of the novel. The narrator describes the life of Jack—the central force of the novel, a man who lives, and soon dies, in a nearby cottage, and who tends to a garden that enchants the narrator:
All around him was ruin; and all around, in a deeper way, was change, and a reminder of the brevity of the cycles of growth and creation. But he had sensed that life and man were the true mysteries; and he had asserted the primacy of these with something like religion. The bravest and most religious thing about his life 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. (93)
Naipaul digs into the theme of growth and creation by lushly describing the natural world in Salisbury: its seasonality, its bounty (epitomized by Pitton’s garden), and the human artifacts that destabilize and pollute it. He also returns to a theme found in his other novels: the formative power of the world. Naipaul sees the individual as shaped by the world from which he emerges. Naipaul draws out the notion of differing worlds by sketching the distinctions between the New World, from which the narrator emigrates, and the Old World, where he currently finds himself. The narrator sees himself as an oddity in rural England because his formative world differs so greatly from his present setting. He is “a man from another hemisphere, another background” (15).
In the world, to Naipaul, one must assert themselves. In his middle age the narrator thinks of death and is consumed with melancholy. He is so afflicted by this melancholy that he is “made so much not a doer (as men must be, every day of their lives)” (343). The parenthetical thought, a seeming throwaway line, is Naipaul’s worldview in its essence. It is expressed at the beginning of A Bend in the River: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” Elsewhere in The Enigma of Arrival, the narrator laments a life that lacks self-assertion: “Her life had repeated; she had lived the same life or versions of the same life. Or, looking at it another way, almost as soon as it had begun, her life of choice and passion had ended” (78).
Unfortunately, the thematic richness and the richness of the prose is let down by poor pacing, a fact that becomes especially apparent in the last hundred pages. By Naipaul’s own admission, during the composition of the book, he set “aside his drafts and hesitations and began to write very fast” (354). It’s not apparent that he edited the book with the same vigor. Still, this only slightly detracts from the better qualities of this meditative and essayistic novel.