The enigma of arrival: a novel - By V. S. Naipaul








FOR THE first four days it rained. I could hardly see where I was. Then it stopped raining and beyond the lawn and outbuildings in front of my cottage I saw fields with stripped trees on the boundaries of each field; and far away, depending on the light, glints of a little river, glints which sometimes appeared, oddly, to be above the level of the land.

The river was called the Avon; not the one connected with Shakespeare. Later—when the land had more meaning, when it had absorbed more of my life than the tropical street where I had grown up—I was able to think of the flat wet fields with the ditches as “water meadows” or “wet meadows,” and the low smooth hills in the background, beyond the river, as “downs.” But just then, after the rain, all that I saw—though I had been living in England for twenty years—were flat fields and a narrow river.

It was winter. This idea of winter and snow had always excited me; but in England the word had lost some of its romance for me, because the winters I had found in England had seldom been as extreme as I had imagined they would be when I was far away in my tropical island. I had experienced severe weather in other places—in Spain in January, in a skiing resort near Madrid; in India, in Simla in December, and in the high Himalayas in August. But in England this kind of weather hardly seemed to come. In England I wore the same kind of clothes all through the year; seldom wore a pullover; hardly needed an overcoat.

And though I knew that summers were sunny and that in winter the trees went bare and brushlike, as in the watercolors of Rowland Hilder, the year—so far as vegetation and even temperature went—was a blur to me. It was hard for me to distinguish one section or season from the other; I didn’t associate flowers or the foliage of trees with any particular month. And yet I liked to look; I noticed everything, and could be moved by the beauty of trees and flowers and early sunny mornings and late light evenings. Winter was to me a time mainly of short days, and of electric lights everywhere at working hours; also a time when snow was a possibility.

If I say it was winter when I arrived at that house in the river valley, it is because I remember the mist, the four days of rain and mist that hid my surroundings from me and answered my anxiety at the time, anxiety about my work and this move to a new place, yet another of the many moves I had made in England.

It was winter, too, because I was worried about the cost of heating. In the cottage there was only electricity—more expensive than gas or oil. And the cottage was hard to heat. It was long and narrow; it was not far from the water meadows and the river; and the concrete floor was just a foot or so above the ground.

And then one afternoon it began to snow. Snow dusted the lawn in front of my cottage; dusted the bare branches of the trees; outlined disregarded things, outlined the empty, old-looking buildings around the lawn that I hadn’t yet paid attention to or fully taken in; so that piece by piece, while I considered the falling snow, a rough picture of my setting built up around me.

Rabbits came out to play on the snow, or to feed. A mother rabbit, hunched, with three or four of her young. They were a different, dirty color on the snow. And this picture of the rabbits, or more particularly their new color, calls up or creates the other details of the winter’s day: the late-afternoon snow light; the strange, empty houses around the lawn becoming white and distinct and more important. It also calls up the memory of the forest I thought I saw behind the whitening hedge against which the rabbits fed. The white lawn; the empty houses around it; the hedge to one side of the lawn, the gap in the hedge, a path; the forest beyond. I saw a forest. But it wasn’t a forest really; it was only the old orchard at the back of the big house in whose grounds my cottage was.

I saw what I saw very clearly. But I didn’t know what I was looking at. I had