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The Enigma of Arrival Paperback – April 12, 1988
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From Publishers Weekly
Discursive and ruminative, more like an extended essay than a novel, the intricately structured chapters in this highly autobiographical book reveal "the writer defined by his . . . ways of seeing." Naipaul, in his own person, narrates a series of events, beginning during a period of soul-healing in Wiltshire, circling back to the day of his departure from Trinidad in 1950 when he was 18, describing his time in London before he went up to Oxford, moving back to Trinidad after his sister's death: these journeys are a metaphor for his life. With beautiful use of detail recaptured from an extraordinary memory, with exquisitely nuanced observations of the natural world and his own interior landscape, he shows how experience is transmogrified after much incertitude and paininto literature. This is a melancholy book, the testament of a man who has stoically willed himself to endure disappointment, alienation, change and grief. Naipaul lays bare the loneliness, vulnerability and anxieties of his life, the sensibility that is both an asset for the writer and a burden for the man. He demonstrates this brilliantly by describing other peoplemainly his neighbors in a village near Stonehenge. Using these characters as catalysts, Naipaul peels back protective layers of memory, sparing himself nothing, revealing the mistakes and inadequacies of his life. The drama resides in small incidents: the death of a cottager, the firing of an estate's gardener; with each account, the narrative is spun more tightly into a seamless tapestry, a powerful document by a master of his craft. Readers Subscription Book Club main selection.
Copyright 1987 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
"Naipaul's finest work so far." —Chicago Tribune
"An elegant memoir, a subtly incisive self-reckoning." —The Washington Post Book World
"Far and away the most curious novel I've read in a long time, and maybe the most hypnotic book I've ever read." —St. Petersburg Times
"The conclusion is both heart-breaking and bracing: the only antidote to destruction—of dreams, of reality—is remembering. As eloquently as anyone now writing, Naipaul remembers." —Time
"V.S. Naipaul is a man who can inspire readers to follow him through the Slough of Despond and beyond.... Like a computer game [this book] leads the reader on by a series of clues, nearer and nearer to an understanding of the man and the writer. Few memoirs can claim as much." —Newsday
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Top Customer Reviews
The book is about a fragment of modern English-speaking society, seen from the perspective of an acute observer from a wildly different culture. The observer's original culture was destroyed by immigration, and he tries to interpret fragments of it from his childhood, like the meaning of sweeping the dirt outside the house each morning. From a related perspective, one can also read Spengler's 'Decline of the West', and John Berger's Pig Earth.
I picked up this book and began reading it at a friend's weekend house and couldn't stop. So, I bought my own copy. That was thirteen years ago. This remains one of my favorite books, in memory. The haiunting cover piece, from a painting by de Chirico, fits the message very well.
I am still reading the book, have not finished it yet.
You cannot read this book for plot. There is no plot. You can't read for character. All characters are viewed through the eyes of the narrator, a thoroughly unlikeable man who has come to the country to write and to heal himself from other writing disasters.
The book can be intensely frustrating. The narrator lives in his own head. I've known others like him -- people who respond to every person and place intellectually. Unlike an anthropologist, he is not trying to understand the culture of those he meets. Rather each individual is put under the narrator's verbal microscope, dissected on the basis of external appearance. We learn that a gardener always dresses up formally and changes clothes with seasons -- but we do not know why. We observe the comings and goings of the village people and the narrator's landlord -- but we do not understand their hearts, minds or motives.
The narrator's distance ultimately comes across as hostile superiority. He does not belong here in this house in the country and he knows he will never fit in. Yet he never allows himself to have a genuine reaction to what he experiences. His encounter with the English countryside is filtered through the writers and artists he knows: Wordsworth, Constable, and more.
Amazingly, we keep turning the pages. Naipul violates every rule of writing. He tells rather than shows. He does not build suspense. The characters do not evoke sympathy. Yet Naipul's command of language keep the reader turning the pages, even when he launches into long descriptions of country places.
It's about language, not plot.
The ending of the book yields the greatest insight. We realize the narrator has become a man without a country, at home nowhere. He sees his own rituals through the eyes of a stranger. It is sad and, perhaps, inevitable. But in the end I, as a reader, was as detached from the narrator as he was from his own environment.
I bought the book to increase my culture.
I bought the book in appreciation of a Nobel Laureate.
I bought the book because I felt I should
None of these reasons were good enough reasons for me to spend time reading it.
The book is painfully slow, and difficult to read. The plot is nearly non-existant, but that can be overcome. The author's point was elusive, making me wonder why I read this. I've known root canals to be less painful.
If you are into Naipul, this may be the book for you.
If you're looking to get into "The Great Books", start with another.
Maybe I'll try again in a few years.