Saturday, June 06, 2015

Stranger in England

The Enigma of Arrival 
by V.S. Naipaul

"I also bought a copy of The New York Times, the previous day's issue of which I had seen the previous day in Puerto Rico. I was interested in newspapers and knew this paper to be one of the foremost in the world. But to read a newspaper for the first time is like coming into a film that has been on for an hour. Newspapers are like serials. To understand them you have to take knowledge to them; the knowledge that serves best is the knowledge provided by the newspaper itself. It made me feel a stranger, that paper." 

The Enigma of Arrival is one of V. S. Naipaul's masterpieces. In this autobiographical novel he successfully conveys to the reader the atmosphere of the English countryside through the meditations of the narrator on his original journey from Trinidad to England. Through the mind of the narrator we experience the fictional reality of the world-a world of Naipaul's making. Echoes from both James Joyce and Marcel Proust are visible in the narration of the novel. This seems a quiet book, but it is a powerful one. The book is composed of five sections that reflect the growing familiarity and changing perceptions of Naipaul upon his arrival in various countries after leaving his native Trinidad and Tobago.

Most of the action of the novel takes place in England where Naipaul has rented a cottage in the countryside. The feeling of the place is palpable and the evocation of place is underlined by the physical effects and the history of the people and their artifacts. On first arriving, he sees the area surrounding his cottage as a frozen piece of history, unchanged for hundreds of years. However, as his stay at the cottage where he is working on another book becomes extended, he begins to see the area for what it is: a constantly changing place with ordinary people simply living lives away from the rest of the world. This causes Naipaul to reflect upon the nature of our perceptions of our surroundings and how much these perceptions are affected by our own preconceptions of a place.

As he re-examines his own emigration from Trinidad to New York, and his subsequent removal to England and Oxford Naipaul's narration illustrates the growing understanding of his place in this new environment and the intricate relations of the people and the land around them. The result is a magnificent read that is encouragement to savor other novels by this Nobel laureate author.

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Priya said...

My only experience with Naipaul is a quirky little book set in rural Trinidad called The Mystic Masseur which I did like. I found his writing of characters very perceptive. Your post has convinced me to pick up this book. "Quiet but powerful" - I love that description.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for this commentary James. I have wanted to read V. S. Naipaul for a awhile. This book looks like it would be a good start.

I like your point about the book being quite but powerful. I am appreciating that sort of artistic expression more and more as I get a little older.

James said...


Thanks for your comment. I hope you enjoy this novel as it also has great characterization.

James said...


Naipaul is powerful in this and other novels. You might enjoy also enjoy A Bend in the River or In a Free State among those other novels.