V.S. Naipaul – The Enigma of Arrival,1987

the-enigma-of-the-arrival-and-the-afternoon-1912PART TWO. THE JOURNEY

TO WRITE ABOUT JACK and his cottage and his garden it was necessary for me to have lived a second life in the valley and to have had a second awakening to the natural world there. But a version of that story — a version — came to me just days after I came to the valley, to the cottage in the manor grounds.

The cottage at that time still had the books and some of the furniture of the people who had been there before. Among the books was one that was very small, a paperback booklet, smaller in format than the average small paperback and with only a few pages. The booklet, from a series called ‘The Little Library of Art’, was about the early paintings of Giorgio de Chirico. There were about a dozen reproductions of his early surrealist paintings. Technically, in these very small reproductions, the paintings did not seem interesting; they seemed flat, facile. And their content was not profound either: arbitrary assemblages, in semi-classical, semi-modern settings, of unrelated motifs — aqueducts, trains, arcades, gloves, fruit, statues — with an occasional applied touch of easy mystery: in one painting, for instance, an over-large shadow of a hidden figure approaching from round a corner.

But among these paintings there was one which, perhaps because of its title, caught my attention: ‘The Enigma of Arrival’. I felt that in an indirect, poetical way the title referred to something in my own experience; and later I was to learn that the titles of these surrealist paintings of Chirico’s hadn’t been given by the painter, but by the poet Apollinaire, who died young in 1918, from influenza following a war wound, to the great grief of Picasso and others.

What was interesting about the painting itself, ‘The Enigma of Arrival’, was that — again perhaps because of the title — it changed in my memory. The original (or the reproduction in the ‘Little Library of Art’ booklet) was always a surprise. A classical scene, Mediterranean, ancient-Roman — or so I saw it. A wharf; in the background, beyond walls and gateways (like cut-outs), there is the top of the mast of an antique vessel; on an otherwise deserted street in the foreground there are two figures, both muffled, one perhaps the person who has arrived, the other perhaps a native of the port. The scene is of desolation and mystery: it speaks of the mystery of arrival. It spoke to me of that, as it had spoken to Apollinaire.

And in the winter gray of the manor grounds in Wiltshire, in those first four days of mist and rain, when so little was clear to me, an idea — floating lightly above the book I was working on — came to me of a story I might one day write about that scene in the Chirico picture.

My story was to be set in classical times, in the Mediterranean. My narrator would write plainly, without any attempt at period style or historical explanation of his period. He 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. 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 cut-out walls and buildings there is no mast, no sail. The antique ship has gone. The traveller has lived out his life.

V.S. Naipaul, born 1932. The Enigma of Arrival,1987. Publisher: Penguin Books,1987 

Image: Giorgio de Chirico, 1888-1978. el enigma de la llegada y la tarde, 1912 The Enigma of the Arrival and the Afternoon. Oil on canvas 70 x 86cm, private collection.

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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