In October 1953, V. S. Naipaul’s father died in Port of Spain, Trinidad. He died in disappointment and misery. He had been waiting to see his son, who was finishing a degree at Oxford, and waiting for his own book of stories to find a publisher. All his life he had struggled to be more than a journalist for the Trinidad Guardian—to be a writer. V. S. Naipaul had not so much been handed this ambition as become its living extension. “I had always looked upon my life as a continuation of his—a continuation which, I hoped, would also be a fulfillment.” To read the letters published recently in Between Father and Son is to see where Naipaul got the spareness of his style, right down to the semi-colons.
Naipaul’s mother and older sister pleaded with him to come home to Trinidad and take up his family duty. Before his death, his father had asked the same thing, and Naipaul had written from Oxford: “If I did so, I shall die from intellectual starvation.” With his father dead, the pressure to return became intense. “Our family was in distress. I should have done something for them, gone back to them. But, without having become a writer, I couldn’t go back.” And so for three years Naipaul put his family off. He was living in London, writing occasional scripts for the BBC Caribbean Service, and trying to complete the book that would make him a writer and lift his family out of debt.
Years later, Naipaul would come across a de Chirico painting to which Guillaume Apollinaire had given the title The Enigma of Arrival. In his book of the same title, Naipaul wrote, “I felt that in an indirect, poetical way the title referred to something in my own experience.” It gave him the idea for a story:
My narrator. . .would arrive—for a reason I had yet to work out—at that classical port with the walls and gateways like cutouts. 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. I imagined some religious ritual in which, led on by kindly people, he would unwittingly take part and find himself the intended victim. 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 cutout walls and build...
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