The idea of ruin and dereliction, out-of-placeness, was something I felt about myself, attached to myself.
-V.S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival (15)
To see oneself defined in relation to others, not in the modern sense, in which one hustles to keep up with the chimera of societal and class expectations, but in the deeper sense, perhaps not shared universally, but by those who are uprooted, or never properly rooted; a keen notion develops of judging the hue, depth and contrast of all the places in which one does not belong.
To see the possibility, the certainty, of ruin, even at the moments of creation: it was my temperament (52).
V.S. Naipaul in his memoir, The Enigma of Arrival describes with perfect tone the feeling of the observer who, by observation of other people and other places, describes oneself. Rather than the traditional I am this style of memoir, Naipaul is an arithmetic of I am not. I am, rather, the undefined difference between what I see and what I am.
Something in Naipaul’s remote but precise voice sent my own mind into an existential reverie. His calm prose emotes understanding, empathy and loneliness. The subtlety of his observations and musings of farm and garden life in bucolic England contrasted harshly with the surroundings in which I read most of this book: sitting in a down and out government agency for down and out citizens after I had gotten lost in a bad neighborhood and then been involved in the first car accident of my life. I sat in the hot waiting room and let his book of psychological disorientation, which perfectly suited my fractured frame of mind, sooth my shaking hands.
When I lived in Italy I often thought about the common exchange- Tutto a posto? how are you? – Response: A posto. Posto means place. All in place? In place.
Her life had repeated; she had lived the same life or versions of the same life. Or, looking at it another way, almost as soon as it had begun, her life of choice and passion had ended – as it had ended for her father, her mother, and possibly for generations of her ancestors (78).
Where we are forms something essential about ourselves and how we think we fit into that place or are stuck in that place, colors our experience of ourselves. The enigma of arrival however is that one never arrives, we find meaning in the journey and place or we perish. As long as choice and passion are alive, then we are too.