Once I’d settled into this, it was a beautiful read. Naipaul is a Nobel Laureate and so you expect that the prose will be challenging. But while A Bend in the River and In a Free State are more “psychologically challenging” as I said in my review of the latter, the challenge with Enigma is that is so very, very simple.
The prose is so measured and the descriptions so simple that you can be forgiven for getting bored until you grasp what Naipaul is doing. This is no accident. The prose perfectly fits the intent of the author. This is a book that is all about reflection, all about understanding the significance of the mundane and all about knowing where you have come from and where you currently are.
In using this construction, Naipaul allows us to read the novel on several different levels. The simplest approach (and the one a British expat in Saudi would most appreciate) is to read it as a beautifully descriptive eulogy to the British countryside. At the most complex level, this is probably beyond me. But there is something here for
every mature novel reader.
I say mature because so many readers these days expect novels to consist of a strong plot. This is not what you’re going to get here as Naipaul describes in detail the many years he lived in a small cottage on a Wiltshire estate. He also describes his emigration from Trinidad to study at Oxford. While plot is not necessary for a good novel, it does help that there are strong characters. These consist mostly of the inhabitants of the estate and all are crafted with care so that, like the reclusive Naipaul, you only get to know them as well as he did.
Along the way, he gives us a great deal of insight into the formative processes of a number of his early works. If you’ve read some of these, as I have, then you’ll find this interesting. If you haven’t, then you probably won’t. So, this is a book that should be read after you’ve completed a few of Naipaul’s key books.
As will all Naipaul that I’ve read so far, he is very good at capturing the issues faced by people who find themselves grappling with cultural identity. As I’ve spent more than half my life out of my passport culture, I very much relate to this. Enigma is known as a semi-autobiographical novel, but at times I felt like he was writing my biography!
For the patient, this book has a great deal to offer. It would probably benefit from a couple of readings actually. There’s a lot going on behind the simple prose and it is worth spending time taking it all in.
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Key: Legacy | Plot / toPic | Characterisation / faCts | Readability | Achievement | Style
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