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Enigma of Decay

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I started reading V. S. Naipaul’s Enigma of Arrival, hoping it would put me right to sleep. Bad idea. I couldn’t put the book down until
my smarting, watery, itchy eyes told me to. They had had an entire night of Naipaul and were not going to budge. Enigma of Arrival is a bewitching book.

It is also a book about walking. A Trinidadian writer goes out to live in an English farming commune. While he fights with a set of demons associated with the ambitions and disappointments of the writing life, he takes these long walks through the mostly abandoned farming colony. He talks about beautiful country views, cottages, milking cows, tending gardens, renegade deers, and larks. But he is also obsessed with the ruins he finds everywhere he goes. He senses that the little agricultural commune did not used to the dying village it had become. All that is left of it are abandoned farm houses and old cottages. Even the manor where the narrator lives has seen grander days. The ruin of all ruins–Stonehenge–is not too far off. Stonehenge is the stony remains of a monument that was built about 5000 years ago. The narrator can stand on a grassy top and look down at Stonehenge and the firing ranges of Salisbury Plains.

The idea of ruin and dereliction, of out-of-placeness, was something I felt about myself, attached to myself: a man from another hemisphere, another background, coming to rest in middle life in the cottage of a half-neglected estate, an estate full of reminders of its Edwardian past, with few connections to the present. An oddity among the estates and big houses of the valley, and I a further oddity in its grounds. I felt anchored and strange…I felt that my presence in that old valley was part of something like an upheaval, a change in the course of the history of the country. — 15, Enigma of Arrival

For most of the novel, the narrator is trying to tell us how he, a Trinidadian writer, ends up in an English country side surrounded by decay. But like all stories that involve remembering things that are past, Enigma of Arrival is all over the place: a series of false starts, several inconclusive endings, lots of repetitions, and exciting digressions–adding up to one of the prettiest writings I’ve ever encountered. It seems to me that the narrator is not sure about how to feel and what to do in the face of ruin and is compelled to wonder: Is decay always a bad thing? Are there things that are more beautiful in their ruined form? Should things like that bring sadness or pleasure?

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Ainehi Edoro is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches African literature. She received her doctorate at Duke University. She is the founder and editor of Brittle Paper and series editor of Ohio University Press’s Modern African Writer’s imprint.

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