The enigma of the colonised: reflections on Naipaul’s arrival

A review article of ‘The Enigma of arrival’ by V.S. Naipaul in Race & Class 32/1 July 1990

I never liked Naipaul. I could never read him without a sense of self-betrayal, I could not enter into his stories without being turned off from myself. There was a smell of burnt belongings in his books as well as the smell of burning icons. But the icons he burnt were mine, those of the colonised not of the coloniser. Them he preserved, mine he burnt for them. 

I was just beginning to come out of the self-hate that colonialism had implanted in me when I first encountered Naipaul – a fellow colonial who knew my condition better than I did, described it with a fine and acute understanding, and then delivered me up to my subjugation in the pursuit of his own deliverance. 

That sense of betraying and being betrayed, around which the whole colonised psyche seems to revolve, has since hung like a vapour over all his writings – warning me against myself, my selling out on myself, my people, on my slave and colonial history. And that he had so soon, so readily become acceptable to the English literati, so easily assimilable, gave that warning flesh. For the moment ‘they’ accept you, you are finished, completed; the moment they adopt you, you have sold out, you have become the object of their history, you have no existence apart from them. Even to lay claim to their language and render it more exquisite than they is an act of self-betrayal – because they re-claim you in their language. 

Now, with the Enigma of Arrival, I am beginning to see that Naipaul was an Englishman from the beginning – not British, English – wholly, uniquely English. Because his imagination is English, of England — of its woods, trees, birds, seas, seasons, stories, lives, loves, poets, kings … – and his reality is an imagined reality. 

Or so it was till his arrival in England, his second arrival, not at Southampton or in Earl’s Court or in Dolphin Square or Gloucester or Oxford even, but here, now, some twenty years later, in a valley in Wiltshire, ‘in the ancient heart of England’, somewhere near Salisbury. It was almost the first English town I had got to know, the first I had been given some idea of, from the reproduction of the Constable painting of Salisbury Cathedral in my third-standard reader. Far away in my tropical island, before I was ten.’ Salisbury was there in his imagination all along, from the time he was ten, and Constable and the Cathedral, they had been real to him all along – and now that reality was being defined, was materialising before his very eyes. The picture in the third-standard reader was taking life. His Englishness was taking flesh. 

Naipaul’s imagination is English, and the language he imagines in is English. ‘Apart from the romance of the Constable reproduction, the knowledge I brought to my setting was linguistic. I knew that “avon” originally meant only river, just as “hound” originally just meant a dog, any kind of dog. In turn, the language gives his imagination shape, identity, habitation – and shape, identity, habitation are all English. ‘I knew that both elements of Waldenshaw – the name of the village and the manor in whose grounds I was – I knew that both “walden” and “shaw” meant wood.’ And that materialisation of the language, in its turn, gives flight to his imagination: ‘One further reason why, apart from the fairytale feel of the snow and the rabbits, I thought I saw a forest.’ He thought he saw a forest. A forest is the logical outcome of ‘walden’ and ‘shaw’, the logical extension of ‘wood’, the logical accompaniment to the fairytale feel of the snow and the rabbits’. 

But he was still nervous of new places, felt his ‘strangeness’ there, his solitude and ‘every excursion into a new part of the country … was for me like a tearing at an old scab’. The scab of memory, surely, and of discovery, rather than of nervousness? He has been here before in the country of his mind and he is in an ecstasy of panic lest he not discover it, un-cover it. 

Yet, he is an intruder, does not quite belong, an ‘oddity’ in the grounds of a half-neglected estate, ‘full of reminders of its Edwardian past, itself an oddity among the estates and big houses of the valley’. And he feels that his ‘presence in that old valley was part of something like an upheaval, a change in the course of the history of the country’. As big as that, his presence, an upheaval in this country – that is how sensitive he is about his intrusion into it. But nowhere does he question the intrusion of this country into his own, nowhere does he show the same sensibility to the presence of Britain in Trinidad. He does not see it as an ‘upheaval’, ‘a change in the course of the history of his ‘own’ country-one which justifies, authorises, not just explains, his presence here. His sensibility is the sensibility of a supplicant, his ‘place’ is as ordained by England, he sees history (his own included) through English eyes. For him, as for that other shameless Anglophile, the American, Eliot, “history is now and England’. 

What he sees of this England, this real England, he sees with ‘the literary eye’, with the literature derived from England’s language, ‘with a knowledge of the language and the history of the language and the writing that allows him to find a special kind of past’ in what he sees. Jack’s father-in-law is ‘a Wordsworthian figure: bent, exaggeratedly bent, going gravely about his peasant tasks, as if in an immense Lake District solitude’. And Jack’s geese – ‘high-headed, dung dropping geese’ – develop a kind of historical life’ for him, ‘something that went beyond the idea of medieval peasantry, old English country ways, and the drawings of geese in children’s books’. So that when, longing to be put in touch with the early language’, he returns to “Lear’ and hears Kent’s railing speech, Goose, if I had you on Sarum Plain, I’d drive ye cackling home to Camelot, he has no doubt about the meaning of the words. ‘Sarum Plain, Salisbury Plain; Camelot, Winchester – just twenty miles away. And I felt that with the help of Jack’s geese … I had arrived at an understanding of something in King Lear which … commentators had found obscure.’ 

The language, the literature and the landscape blend into and continue from each other, unbroken, a sense of antiquity about them, answering to Naipaul’s own need for continuity, for certainty, for a clear historical line’. 

Everything in Naipaul’s life had been temporary, fractured, uncertain. Just when he thought he was settling down, he had to move on, and rarely of his own volition. His ancestors ‘had been transported’ from India – they had not migrated, left of their own accord, they had been transported’, moved on. As a child in Trinidad, Naipaul’s family circumstances had moved him around from one ‘half-ruined or broken down’ house to another, imbuing him with a general air of uncertainty, ‘a sense of glory dead’. And even in England he had not come to rest till, twenty years after his first arrival, he arrives in the grounds of this gently decaying estate in Wiltshire. 

One thing alone had sustained him through all those fractures and ruptures, one thing alone had given him a sense of continuity: the English language. “The migration, within the British Empire, from India to Trinidad had given me the English language as my own, and a particular kind of education.’ 

With that language he could create a world of his own, a world over which he had control, in which he could be secure. And it answered to the world which he had known through the English language, through his English education – a world full of Salisbury cathedrals and Wiltshire estates and Constables, a world of quiet beauty, peace, stability. ‘Living in the grounds of this shrunken estate, going out for … walks …’, the ‘nerves’ which had been given him as a child in Trinidad and made him see ‘the possibility, the certainty, of ruin, even at the moment of creation’ were ‘soothed’. And ‘in the wild garden and orchard beside the water meadows, I found a physical beauty perfectly suited to my temperament and answering, besides, every good idea I could have had, as a child in Trinidad, of the physical aspect of England.’ 

Naipaul is so grateful for the language, the culture, the landscape (first imaginary, learnt from books, and then real) that saved him from ‘the certainty of ruin’ and gave him ‘a clear historical line’ that he does not see that it is that same language, culture, landscape even, that determined his ‘ruin’ in the first place. He is so relieved to be liberated from subjugation that he credits his liberation to the subjugator. In the subjugator’s morality he finds his own disposition: all his characters are colonials. In the subjugator’s conviction he finds his own belief: anyone that tries to overthrow the subjugator instead of becoming like him/her – in Naipaul it is invariably a him — throws himself/herself back into disorder, chaos, ruin. 

Nevertheless, Naipaul’s writing is too nuanced to be captured in such monochrome. He may be more than half in love with England, but he is not unreckoning of her slave and colonial past. And yet it is only on a personal level – as it affects him, his perception of himself, his understanding of character, not as it affects the country, the peoples, the society he came from. ‘And that took some understanding, that people like Brenda and Les, who were so passionate, so concerned with their individuality, their style, the quality of their skin and hair, it took some understanding that people who were so proud and flaunting in one way should be prepared in another corner of their hearts or souls or minds to go down several notches and be servants … Within that condition (which should have neutered them) all their passions were played out. But that might have been my own special prejudice, my own raw nerves. I came from a colony, once a plantation society, where servitude was a more desperate condition.’ 

That knowledge of servitude gives him an insight into the different servitude of the Brendas and Les’s, but no understanding of the servitude of his own people who had no less refused to be ‘neutered’ than Brenda and Les had, except that their (the people’s) refusal led to the fraudulence and chaos of revolution’. He sees the desperation of his country’s servitude, but not the desperation of its unending resistance to it. He sees, though, that Brenda and Les and the Phillipses have not succumbed to theirs. He does not understand the condition of slavery, only the feeling of servitude. ‘I came from a colony, a plantation society, where servitude was a more desperate condition.’ In his writer’s mill, slavery is turned into servitude, the objective condition into subjective feeling, the reality into metaphor. He internalises the slave condition, individualises it, and so anaesthetises it of all social consideration. Hence he writes not of slavery, an exploitative system, of which England is a specific villain, but of servitude, a personal attribute, which, in one measure or another, attaches to all of us. He appears not to have forgotten his native frame of reference (to slavery, colonialism, plantation society) and yet in the process of individualising that history (applying it, that is, to the individual predicament rather than the social condition), internalising it even (for the understanding of oneself), transmuting condition into attribute – for his own peace of mind, his own security, his freedom from uprootedness, but with his writer’s genius – he abandons that history without appearing to abandon it, betrays without seeming to betray. Through that magic alchemy of the writer’s craft, he transmutes a system into an attribute and passes off one for the other as though doing service to both. 

Naipaul dreads change, he associates it with disorder, discontinuity. His whole life was that, all colonial life was that. And so he finds solace in cultivating ‘old, possibly ancestral ways of feeling’, Indian ways of feeling, Hindu ways, and holds on to the idea of a world in flux’, in change, a turning world, turning on the axis of creation and destruction: ‘the drum of creation in the god’s right hand, the flame of destruction in his left’, the dance of Shiva, Nataraja, the king of the dance. 

At the still point of the turning world.

Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards

Sometimes Naipaul goes beyond Hindu ways of feeling to lapse into Hindu belief. ‘It is as if we all carry in our make-up the effects of accidents that have befallen our ancestors, as if we are in many ways programmed before we are born, our lives half outlined for us’. And once or twice he comes close to seeing his sojourn in Wiltshire as a sort of reincarnation, this gift of the second life . . . , the second, happier childhood … He trails his Indian-ness along behind him like a comfort. 

But solace is not enough, he must have security, if not in changelessness, at least in ‘antiquity’, if not in tranquility, at least in being ‘in tune with’. And the past here in his Constable country was ‘like something one could stretch out and reach, it was like something physically before one, like something one could walk in’. The past here was concrete, tangible, captured and kept. “The water meadows had the effect … of abolishing the distance between Constable and the present: the painter . . . seemed as near and contemporary as what he made us now see: the water channels and pollarded willows he had settled down one day to paint.’ There was no rupture here between the painter and the landscape, the imagination and the reality, the past and the present. 

Even the trees bespoke history, continuity: the yews, the beeches, the ivy, they all had their own historical associations, their literary allusions, their own continuing metaphors. And they were in tune with everything around them. ‘The lane . . , was overhung with yew; and summer added the layer-upon-layer shade of beech and copper beech; so that even while I was in that gloom, the openness of the lawn and the soft warm colours of the cottage were visible. I felt delight at the long, low shape of the building set right against the beeches . . . I felt delight at the setting, the naturalness, the rightness.’ Yews over-hang, beeches shade over … but there is no gloom here except as in chiaroscuro. They belong: the gloom belongs to the openness; the beeches belong with the cottage. Everything is in tune. God is in his heaven … 

‘I was to have something like a second life here … those first four days of fog – before I went out walking on the downs – were like a rebirth for me… In the most unlikely way, at an advanced age, in a foreign country, I was to find myself in tune with a landscape in a way that I had never been in Trinidad or India (both sources of different kinds of pain). 

And everything about that landscape tells a tale. The date set in stone high on the cottage wall, 1911, reminds Naipaul that it was ‘the coronation year of the King-Emperor, George the Fifth’; at Amesbury ‘there was an abbey and perhaps also the remnant of the nunnery to which Guinevere came from Winchester-Camelot when the Round Table of King Arthur broke up’; the cows on the downs were the ‘lowing herd’ of Gray’s ‘Elegy’, ‘the sober herd’ of the ‘Deserted Village’ – ‘matching’ not the poor sickly cows of Trinidad, but the idea of the cows’ on the labels of condensed milk tins which he had known as a child. 

Everything tells a tale of this England, the England that Naipaul imbibed as a colonial child. Here are recognitions, continuities, memories, associations, allusions, endless metaphors, sights and scents — a fullness of life, a belonging and a safety, a life sempiternal, which the sundered, fractured colonial soul can only find, here and now, ready-made and whole in the colonial culture that broke him in the first place. Only by embracing his contradiction can he be complete again, only by accepting the lie of colonialism can he be true. 

That which makes the colonial unmakes him, and he remakes himself in the image of that which has unmade him. His sensibilities cry out for location, rebirth, renewal. And he finds them not in contestation against his deracinator but by embracing him and his indelible continuities. 

The colonised psyche thinks to find its resolution, its reconciliation to itself, through embracing colonialism again, this time of its own volition, in full knowledge of what it is doing and, having failed to become whole in itself, become whole in the other. But the journey is not quite done, the arrival not quite made. Certainly not the first time out, because that journey takes you back to where you started from, to re-assess it perhaps, to see it with a new vision’, to understand it, but also, finally, to leave it, reject it even, abjure its uncertainties, its chaos and disorder. And it is only then, when you leave again, that you discover what you must arrive at – though where you arrive at may still only be ‘the quayside of arrival’. 

In order to arrive at where you are not

You must go through the way in which you are not 

And what you do not know is the only thing you know 

And what you own is what you do not own 

And where you are is where you are not. 

His own enigma of arrival, Naipaul glimpses vividly in Chirico’s painting of that name (reproduced on the dust jacket) – or, rather, in the story that he makes of it for himself. 

‘My story was to be set in classical times, in the Mediterranean. My narrator . . . would arrive – for a reason I had yet to work out – at that classical port with the walls and gateways like cut-outs. He would walk past that muffled figure on the quayside. He would move from that silence and desolation, that blankness, to a gateway or door. He would enter there and be swallowed by the life and noise of a crowded city (I imagined something like an Indian bazaar scene). The mission he had come on – family business, study, religious initiation – would give him encounters and adventures. He would enter interiors, of houses and temples. Gradually there would come to him a feeling that he was getting nowhere; he would lose his sense of mission; he would begin to know only that he was lost. His feeling of adventure would give way to panic. He would want to escape, to get back to the quayside and his ship. But he wouldn’t know how… At the moment of crisis he would come upon a door, open it, and find himself back on the quayside of arrival. He has been saved; the world is as he remembered it. Only one thing is missing now. Above the cut-out walls and buildings there is no mast, no sail. The antique ship has gone. The traveller has lived out his life.’

The journey is over. There is only the arrival, the second arrival, in Wiltshire, the arrival proper, at a second life, re-incarnation, washed of the sins of the past, the sins of previous births. 

Naipaul had left Trinidad for England when he was barely eighteen, on a scholarship to Oxford, to become a writer. And, as behoves a writer-in-waiting, he keeps a diary and observes himself and others, and himself with others, on that passage to England, with the prejudices of a Brahmin and the longings of a colonial. He is amazed that the white air-hostess -radiant and beautiful and adult should call him ‘sir and coddled that she should sharpen his pencil for him. He wonders why he tries to make friends at the airport with a ‘Negro’ from Trinidad (‘not someone I would have sought at home’) and offers a banana to an Englishwoman (he had met only one before) seated next to him on the plane – and reckons that those (different) gestures of friendship spring from the same cause of solitariness. On the stop-over in New York he is mortified that he has been cheated by a taxi-driver and has no money left to tip the “Negro’ at the hotel – both humiliations that bite deep. 

But as yet these experiences do not enter into his writing, the man and the writer are not yet one, the man is not material to his writing. ‘The writer, or the boy travelling to be a writer, was educated; he had had a formal school education … But the man … was in the profoundest way – as a social being -untutored.’ The social world the man knew was a ‘half-Indian world … removed in time and space from India … its language not even half understood, its religion and religious rites not grasped … He knew little about his community in Trinidad … He had only the prejudices of his time, in that colonial, racially mixed setting.’ 

As the journey progresses, the man becomes even more separate from the writer, his experiences even more removed from his writings. And race was central to that experience. On the boat taking him from New York to Southampton, Naipaul discovers that the single cabin so generously awarded him by the purser was merely to keep him from being mixed into a white cabin. That he realises this only when a ‘Negro’ refuses to be segregated with him into a coloured quarter makes Naipaul’s humiliation that much keener. On another occasion, a Southerner on the boat confides to him that what coloured people want nowadays is to ‘get into your bed and sleep with you’, and Naipaul is ‘amazed that someone ‘so full of racial feeling’ could talk to him like that ‘as though he didn’t see me racially’. 

And yet race was not something he could get himself to write about, ‘good familiar material’ though it was. ‘That was not the kind of personality that the writer wished to assume; that was not the material he dealt in.’ It was too close to his ‘disturbance’, his ‘vulnerability’, the separation of his two selves. And the concept of the writer given him by his colonial education, as someone ‘possessed of sensibility who *recorded or displayed an inward development,’ further estranged the man from the writer. 

It is only after he leaves Oxford some five years later, when he begins writing about the street of his childhood in his native Port of Spain, that Naipaul discovers that his subject was not his sensibility,  his inward development, but ‘the worlds I contained within myself, the worlds I lived in’… 

His return to Trinidad the following year, though, leaves him with the feeling that the world he had thought he had left behind had ‘shrunk’ and he with it. Besides, he could not pursue his calling there: he was still to be published. And so he goes back to England, not to ‘the old Victorian grandeur’ of Earl’s Court as before, but to a ‘working class Kilburn house of grey, almost black, brick . . .’ In the next four years he ‘pulls’ much work out of himself and, having produced an “important book’, returns to Trinidad (ten years after he had first left it) with ‘the security of a man who had at last made himself what he had wanted to be . . .’ But the island cannot hold him. It had been his ‘starting point’, his ‘centre’; it had been the locus of his books. But seeing it now from above, as it were, his fears all done – its landscape had once been a ‘landscape of anxiety, even panic, and sacrifice’- his interest in the island was ‘satisfied, even sated, in a day’. Its people ‘had no news; they revealed themselves quickly. Their racial obsessions, which once could tug at my heart, made them simple people.’ Besides, he was a ‘traveller-writer’ now, commissioned to write on the remaining colonies of the Caribbean and the Guianas, on India, on his own city, Port of Spain. And as ‘a colonial travelling among colonials’ he found it necessary to ‘acknowledge’ more of himself, to ‘define’ himself to himself. Trinidad offered him no continuity, India hung like ‘a loose end’ in his mind, his past fell away into the ‘chasm between the Antilles and India’. But reading the documents of his island, in London, for his book on the Port of Spain, Naipaul is amazed to learn of the ‘antiquity’ of the place to which he ‘belonged’. He had been used to seeing Trinidad from the road, as it were ‘at ground level’ an agricultural colony ‘at the end of a century-long colonial torpor’, but now he could ‘attach the island, the little place in the mouth of the Orinoco river to great names and great events: Columbus; the search for El Dorado; Sir Walter Ralegh’. And, in the writing of that history, he feels he has arrived at a synthesis of the worlds and cultures that had made him. And he returns to his new found land – wearying, too, of England and his ‘savourless’ life there, ‘much of it mean’, and wanting once and for all to put an end to that first journey some twenty years ago which had ‘seeded’ all the other journeys and fractured him so – only to find the island ‘full of racial tension and close to revolution’, ‘The Negroes of Trinidad … were asserting their separateness … They wore their hair in a new way. The hair that had been with them a source of embarrassment and shame, a servile badge, they now wore as a symbol of aggression.’ 

The vision of the history he had written was ‘not the vision that set the young black people marching in the streets and threatening another false revolution. The story had not stopped where my book had stopped; the story was going on.’ He saw the anger from both sides: ‘from the side of the Negroes, the people with the hair, and also from the side of the Asian-Indian community, the people mainly threatened, not black, not white’ – but the place was no longer his. 

He leaves Trinidad for good and returns to England – to a rented flat in London (where the talk of workmen beneath his window brings him into contact with a side of England he had never known, like ‘an unknown country’), to a private house in Gloucester (‘a small, mean, common town’) and finally to the cottage in the Wiltshire valley, 

He has arrived in England proper, historical England, England with its antiquity intact. Trinidad might have antiquity, but it was ruptured by race and threatened by revolution. India had antiquity, even tradition, but for him it was a ‘loose end’. The England of London, urban England, was ‘savourless’ and ‘mean’. Only the England of Constable, of manorial houses and decaying estates, had antiquity and tradition and class and savour. He belonged. 

The landscape answered to his temperament, soothed his nerves. It was ‘benign’, he could heal here, learn about the seasons at last, be re-born. He was in tune. 

Even the decay he sees around him he construes into change, and change, which he once grieved over, he could now accept as a constant. ‘I lived with the idea of change, of flux, and learned, profoundly, not to grieve for it … Decay implied an ideal, a perfection in the past.’ The past, at last, could be laid to rest. 

He finds common cause, too, with the lord of the manor, his landlord, a recluse like him, and an aristocrat of the sensibilities, a veritable Brahmin, writing poems on Krishna and Shiva. They might have emerged from the opposite sides of Empire, ‘at opposite ends of wealth, privilege and in the hearts of different cultures’, but, as individuals, they both sought seclusion, solitude, a withdrawal from the world. And Empire is reconciled. * 

*As I write, Naipaul has been made a knight.

But there is no real reconciliation, no real ‘synthesis’, between man and writer; the man and the writer do not come together – despite Naipaul’s avowals to the contrary. Or, if they do, it is at the expense of the man, at cost to the man (and therefore to the writer). Because the centrality of the man’s experience, the point of separation between man and writer, race, is not dealt with historically. He may accept it as central to his personal experience, but he does not come to terms with the centrality of race in the formation of Trinidadian society and of himself, and indeed of all colonial societies. He may claim that he no longer hides himself from his experience, or his experience from himself, but he hides race from its historical experience and himself from the historical experience of race. Hence he sees revolution as chaotic and futile when it is the cry of a people against the chaos and futility of their lives – an attempt to make order out of chaos, a new order out of colonial chaos. He sees the historical discontinuities of his country without understanding the political continuities of its resistance to slavery and colonialism. In the colonies there are no historical continuities, only political.


And so he is out of sympathy with the peoples he writes about, his own people, his ‘material’. He mocks them, derides them, draws them, cruelly, honestly, from within – with the acuity and brazenness of an unregenerate double-agent – but he does not understand them. Because he cannot understand the racism that structures their societies or the racial history that made them, he cannot find the imagination to become them. But what is a writer if not his imagination? And what is this imagination which does not make of himself the other? 

He feels his own humiliations keenly – ‘the humiliation the taxi-driver had caused me when he had cheated me; the humiliation I had felt at not being able to tip the Negro in the hotel’ — but he cannot understand the humiliation, a whole history of humiliation, associated with the term Negro, whether in recall of himself when young or in his voice today. How could a man, who has a feel for words and feels his own wounds so much, not know his words wound, not feel the wounds of others as his own? How may the wounded wound? 

Failing to come to terms with the historical experience of racism, he is diminished as a man. Diminished as a man, he is diminished as a creator. Ultimately there is only his craft, and it is that craft that bridges the gap between man and writer. The synthesis between man and writer, that is, is achieved technically, through the craft of the writer not the creativity of the man. The man is subsumed under the writer. And so the thinking becomes less profound, less truthful, even as the writing gets finer, more truth-like – achieving perhaps a synthesis between man and writer, but not a symbiosis. The writer quarries the man to become a better writer, a man quarries the world to become more human.