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RICHARD EDER

The Enigma of Arrival by V. S. Naipaul (Knopf: $17.95; 352 pp.)

March 22, 1987|RICHARD EDER

The colonial experience and the adoptive experience resemble each other in this: Both may set off a never-concluded search for an elusive identity.

Trinidad is V. S. Naipaul's land of origin and the subject of a part of his writing. It was his home, but it was shadowed by another home. England was a lure, an undermining distance. Who was this oddly beneficent, sometimes inviting, and suddenly indifferent stranger? What was she to him?

"The Enigma of Arrival" is an oblique, exasperating and finally moving book. It is both fiction and memoir. It is a true autobiography, some of whose characters--narrator apart--seem to be invented or partly invented.

It is a journal and a series of reflections based on the years that Naipaul spent in the English countryside. His cottage was a place for solitude, for writing, and for recovering from his travels. Naipaul is the hardest of travelers, spiritually speaking.

The journal's purpose is gradually disclosed. Instead of identifying himself with England, as a colonial writer might have done in an earlier generation, Naipaul pursues a strained but illuminating effort to identify England with himself.

Searching and inventing his way into a fragment of rural society, he finds a country in decay--as he, middle-aged, is beginning to be. It is as much as a cast-off remnant of its former self as any run-down plantation or newly swamped township in the Caribbean. England is its own Third World.

Naipaul's cottage lies in a valley some miles outside the cathedral town of Salisbury, and not far from the Druid remains at Stonehenge. It is on an estate that flourished at the turn of the century, not from its own resources but from the fortune made by its Edwardian proprietor in the colonies.

The colonies are gone; so is most of the fortune. The present landlord is a half-invalid descendant, afflicted with depression, inertia and paralyzing timidity. Through his years there, Naipaul traces the waning attention given to the gardens and the manor house; and the attrition of the remaining staff from death, old age and a shriveled payroll.

It is the farthest thing from a straightforward record. Naipaul has encounters and conversations, but he renders them at an oblique angle, as if they were archeological evidences of a world long gone. To the English reticence, he adds his own. He contrives to tell us a great deal about the neurasthenic landlord from what he gleans here and there--and from the poems the latter shyly sends him--but he only glimpses him twice and never exchanges more than a word.

He skips forward and backward. He will cite an event and return to elaborate on it much later. He circles like a kite. He makes vivid portraits of a gardener who tries to dress like a country gentleman; of the local taxi driver who prizes his independence, yet declines with the decline of the estate where his father worked.

But Naipaul keeps his distance. His descriptions of the seasons and of the countryside are detailed and precise, but almost perversely non-evocative. He does not lose himself in the landscape enough to find himself in it. His writing can be blockish, and it employs deliberate, grating repetitions.

He is shunning artistry in favor of discovery, because his attention to the works and days of this fading kingdom is for the sake of something else. Like someone who keeps a meticulous record of the weather as a way to pin down his inchoate feelings, Naipaul dips in and out of his rural journal to try to understand his own aging life as a writer, an inhabitant of two worlds, and a native of none.

Interspersed with his accounts of local dilapidation--the would-be gentleman gardener is fired and goes to work delivering milk; a sewage pipe under the manor lawn erupts in a brown geyser--Naipaul writes of his own illnesses and loss of energy. And he goes back to recall his evolution as a writer, and his struggle to accept himself. They are, in fact, the same thing.

He gives a wry and poignant account of leaving his Hindu family in Trinidad to take up a scholarship at Oxford. He already considered himself a novelist, he writes, but all he dealt with was abstractions. He made careful notes of his travels but never thought to record the emotions of his farewell to his family. Crossing the Atlantic, he attempted a sophisticated short story about shipboard romance. It did not occur to him to explore the many layers of pain he felt when the purser tries to place him and a black shipmate in the same cabin because they were the only two non-white passengers aboard.

It was only after five years of struggle and sterility, he recalls, that he stopped trying to be a "metropolitan writer" and, setting down a recollection of a Trinidad street, became his own.

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