What the Swedes Read: V. S. Naipaul

What the Swedes Read: V. S. Naipaul

Daniel Handler
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  • LAUREATE: V. S. Naipaul (Trinidad and Britain, 2001)
  • BOOK READ: The Enigma of Arrival

Travel can be the perfect book. You see fresh scenery. You meet new people. Everyday details, invisible in your ordinary life, emerge as unexpected and wondrous, infused with the sort of clear-eyed observation that comes from being a stranger. It’s the mission of so much literature to make the everyday vivid and striking, and yet we can all find this experience (Look what they do at weddings! Look what they eat in the morning!) by putting down our books and leaving town.

No surprise, then, that so many writers pile on the travel in their work in one way or another. Books take long walks through town (Open City, The Unconsoled) and long drives (Lolita, On the Road). Novels board their characters onto trains and planes, often so an inward journey has a matching exterior one, and nonfiction writers visit distant war zones or faraway fish markets to bring home the goods in a book about bringing home the goods. The journey might even be an excuse for a journey; more than one writer I know has traveled to some intriguing locale and then filled in the book later.

But of course there are authors who cannot help but write of a journey, so much does journeying dominate their outlook and experience. V. S. Naipaul is one of these. He was born in Trinidad and then emigrated to England as a young man, but what matters is not just the where of his life, but the when. His early books were published in the late 1950s, when England was engaged in the business of figuring out what to do with an empire, and Naipaul became a de facto spokesman for the postcolonial view.

The first Naipaul I read was A House for Mr. Biswas, a bright and busy novel full of local color that wasn’t, you know, the color of my locality. I remember someone said to me that the book wouldn’t have been noticed if it weren’t about a far-flung culture, which is like saying Star Wars wouldn’t be as good if it took place not a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, but three weeks ago in Boulder, Colorado. A House for Mr. Biswas fascinates, and maybe it wouldn’t fascinate if you already knew all about the cultural crises of Indo-Trinidadians, but you don’t, do you? Neither do I.

For this column I decided to try The Enigma of Arrival, for two reasons, the main one being that I’d read some of Naipaul’s fiction and some of his nonfiction and this book appeared to be a midway point. My edition, for instance, has critical praise on the back describing the book both as “an elegant memoir” and “far and away the most curious novel I’ve read in a long time.” This might sound confounding, but The Enigma of Arrival turns out to be a common enough sort of literary creature: the book that’s obviously very, very true, with the sort of small shaping present in all memoirs but that is occasionally cause for so much controversy that publishers tack on “a novel” to silence those who are whining, “Did you know that the guy he calls Jack in the book was really notorious British eccentric Stephen Tennant?”

“Jack’s Garden,” the opening section of the book, situates the narrator­—oh, stop it, it’s Naipaul­—in rural Britain, a locale I couldn’t help but find startling for a transplanted Trinidadian. Naipaul doesn’t find it startling, though. He feels bound to his environs not by birth or by blood but by history and literature, the delights of the Oxford education that beckoned him out of his homeland:

So much of this I saw with the literary eye, or with the aid of literature. A stranger here, with the nerves of the stranger, and yet with a knowledge of the language and the history of the language and the writing, I could find a special kind of past in what I saw; with a part of my mind I could admit to fantasy…

I returned to King Lear for the first time for more than twenty years, and read in Kent’s railing speech, “Goose, if I had you upon Sarum Plain, I’d drive ye cackling home to Camelot,” the words were quite clear to me. Sarum Plain, Salisbury Plain; Camelot, Winchester—just twenty miles away… I had arrived at an understanding of something in King Lear which, according to the editor of the text I read, commentators had found obscure.

Over time, the landscape and the few people in it slowly transform in Naipaul’s eye, from a timeless place and source of solace from the life he left behind to a place with its own tangles and tumults, which provide less of one kind of solace—a blank space on which Naipaul can project his own, often-troubled ideas—and more of another: the true solace of making yourself at home. The start of the book feels like a fish-out-of-water premise—one can almost imagine the culture-clash comedy of a film adaptation—but by the book’s close Naipaul’s individual terrors and griefs have been folded into the landscape as he thinks through who and where he’s been, and who and where he is now.

These ideas are threaded through the book’s plot, but to say there isn’t much of a story isn’t accurate; it’s just that Naipaul doesn’t make much of it. The pondering of things becomes a background for the things themselves—
I can’t remember another book where I read general musings on murder only to stop and realize that a murder had occurred—and the book moves at a fine clip because of the author’s quick-moving brain, not because of anything rushing around him:

There came a stage on my walk along the riverbank when I stood directly in front of the water meadow where the yellow irises grew. Beyond that was the old orchard, with the box enclosure that lay to one side of my cottage. Above the orchard and the vegetable-garden wall I saw the roof and chimneys of my own cottage below the beeches, and was surprised all over again, every time, that that was where I lived.

It’s the pace that’s good here, the way we move so quickly across a dense place that seems at once mysterious and comfy. More than once I was reminded of one of our least Trinidadian writers, Richard Ford, who makes his way through the everyday, even the banal, with prose that isn’t so much beautiful as it is immersive. I’d look up from a chapter break in The Enigma of Arrival and find I’d lost an hour in one hundred pages, blinking around the room, wondering how I’d gotten there.

A book you can get lost in, however, is sometimes like music you can dance to—you love it at the time, but not always when it’s done. The Enigma of Arrival has a snake-eating-its-tail kind of ending, in which the book justifies itself by explaining that it’s the book the author wrote to justify the book, reminding me that it was an account of one man’s individual quest, and thus perhaps most satisfying to the man in question. Or perhaps not. The other reason I chose The Enigma of Arrival is because someone told me it was their all-time favorite book. It’s rare that you read someone’s all-time favorite book and agree wholeheartedly with the assessment, but The Enigma of Arrival, with its quiet peculiarities and mesmerizing pace, makes a case that it should be someone’s, possibly a Swedish someone’s, most pleasurable journey.

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