[Caribbean Literature]

Naipaul's Foils

Part Two of The Double and the Center

David P. Lichtenstein '99, Brown University, Contributing Editor, Caribbean Web

V.S. Naipaul outlines several binarisms as he describes his life in England and the events that led up to it. Although he never uses his own name (and thus forces the reader to make a distinction between the author and the narrator), he has taken most of the events directly from his own life. Frequently in this pseudo-autobiography (the book's cover pronounces it "a novel"), Naipaul employs the technique of foils, of describing one object (say the imagined first story he wrote, "Gala Night") in order to flesh out differences between it and the corresponding norm or standard (in this case the novel The Enigma of Arrival itself). These foils consistently serve to illustrate a critical distinction for the narrator: the division between man and writer. For Naipaul, man seems capable of pure experience unmitigated by lenses of literature or other forms of culture, whereas the writer acts as interpreter, referencing other works and using language to explain these experiences. But Naipaul's foils signify his struggle to unify man and writer, to achieve both unfiltered experience and the creative, interpretive power of granting meaning. This struggle takes on a particularly Postcolonial twist for Naipaul, as reaching his own unfiltered experience in part involves confronting his (not always pretty) status as colonized, as a man whose origins lie in the marginalized and dominated state of Trinidad, and then dealing with his experiences as a Postcolonial man living in the former imperial center, England.

Many of the characters in Enigma exemplify traits which the narrator perceived in himself and yet was struggling to avoid. When introducing Alan, his literary friend and colleague, the narrator notes the similar struggles which each endured:

But Alan seemed to have as much trouble with his idea of the writer and his material as I had had with mine...And that writer's personality of Alan's was partly genuine, and no more fraudulent than my own character, my idea of myself as a writer, had been in 1950. Just as, in my writing in those days, I was hiding my experience from myself, hiding myself from my experience, to that extent falsifying things...so all the literary sides of his character that Alan exhibited...hinted at truths that were as hard for him to face as certain things had been for me (250).

In addition to seeing the troubles that plagued the narrator in accessing "his experience", (what he believed essential to really discover writing material) one can see how similar he felt himself to Alan and his troubles. But (in much the same way as the landlord's accidia functions) Alan's tragic suicide and funeral, and the fact that the narrator compares Alan with his own past self (which presumably the narrator has now outgrown), all demonstrate the narrator's wish to separate himself, indeed define himself in contrast with Alan. For Alan embodies the writer's mind, a figure who acts "literary" : who takes notes in a diary, who mingles with an upper class literati crowd, but cannot write of his own dark, personal experiences (with depression or otherwise) and therefore creates nothing. Instead Alan survives by being a critic, praising the work of other writers (which is how they remember him at his funeral) and vainly hoping to mimic their achievements in his own writing. In this vein the narrator notes how perfect Alan would have been if he could have remained permanently in the radio studio (from which he announced his critical commentary), sheltered from the outside world and the ensuing pain of his own experiences in it.

The narrator's landlord at the manor represents a similar foil. Like Alan he represents both similarity and opposition to the narrator:

I was his opposite in every way, social, artistic, sexual. And considering that his family's fortune had grown...with the spread of the empire in the nineteenth century, it might be said that an empire lay between us. This empire at the same time linked us. This empire explained my birth in the New World, the language I used...in the explained my presence there in the valley...(174)

Unlike Alan, the landlord does create, weaving baskets and writing poetry. But in his poetry he appropriates such Indian lore as the gods Shiva and Krishna, of whom he demonstrates only a superficial understanding. In this way he reverses the narrator's position as having been drenched in a foreign cultural tradition, by appropriating (poorly) a culture whose origins he does not share. Even worse (to the narrator trying to define himself in contrast) the landlord, symbolic of the British empire itself, stays within his own, safe grounds, resting on his family name and reputation and remaining blined to the rot going on around him:

But my landlord preferred to be with what he knew...He himself could not think of a life away from his house and garden, which perhaps he continued to see in his own way, perhaps even saw as whole and perfect, the way we fail to see the tarnishing that has gradually come to flats or houses where we have lived a long time (198).

Again he becomes for the narrator a figure of man removed from experience, cut off from both his own cultural legacy (a point of similarity that the narrator must reverse) and sheltered within his illusions from the pain of the world around him.

Which brings us to perhaps the ultimate point of reconciliation for Naipaul between man and writer. Only by shedding masks (such as the Anglicized name "Victor" which Angela gives him) and illusions (his romantic notions of the English countryside, his assumed writing personality, his ideas of what proper material consists of) and turning to his own, Postcolonial and perhaps ugly experience, can the narrator begin to "write very fast" as he says at the novel's conclusion. The death of his sister seems to catalyze a breakthrough for the narrator. He sheds illusory notions of the sanctity of the past (as his disappointment in the fancy car and flippant attitude of the pundit demonstrate), he begins to confront his status as a Postcolonial man, and perhaps most fundamentally, to integrate his understanding of life and death. Quite often these last two serve as foils for each other as the narrator views nature and sees the processes of growth and decay in constant battle.

The narrator demonstrates his synthetic vision of life and death with perspective on Jack, another character "peripheral to my life" (suggesting the narrator occupying the center). Jack becomes both foil and inspiration for the narrator for two reasons. First, in the vein of the mingling of life and death, Jack's final act of visiting the local pub where all of his friends sit, just before he dies, suggests to the narrator a touching celebration of life in the face of death, a refusal of the moridity which so often plagues the narrator. Second, Jack acts as a foil for the narrator in a manner quite opposite to that of Alan or the landlord. Jack first and foremost represents man, with no illusions or pretensions. Jack has understood and accepted his (p)lot in life (hence the chapter entitled Jack's Garden), and he creates with the materials--small yard, tools, strength--which he has been given. Jack becomes the one possible hero in the novel for his homespun acceptance of larger forces around him:

Jack himself had disregarded the tenuousness of his hold on the land...he had created a garden on the edge of a swamp and a ruined farmyard: had responded to and found glory in the seasons...But he had sensed that life and man were the true mysteries...he had asserted, at the very end, the primacy not of what was beyond life, but life itself (87).

Clearly the narrator admires what he sees as Jack's inner peace, his ability to live uncluttered by a literary mind, and afterwards to create, on his own terms. Thus the narrator at the end of the book celebrates in his own discovery of Jack's principle, exulting in the realization of "life and man as the mystery. (318)"

[Main Web Page] [Caribbean] Themes