The Engima of Arrival Review

Posted on July 22, 2011

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Life is a Highway

Life is a Highway, Tom Cochrane and VS Naipaul agree

This is probably not one of Nobel winner VS Naipaul’s better known works, but what makes it stand out for me is the idea of finding one’s start and end point on that stretch of highway we refer to as time.

The highway is represented in the “novel” by a road that runs through the countryside, as well as the lives of Naipaul’s neighbors. At the beginning of the book, Naipaul is unaware the road exists. But then he recognizes it through various clues, such as ancient furrows in the hillside, first as a river bed, then as a “way”, then as a “droveway”, then as a cart track that travels from the cottage where he’s staying, through farmland, fences, over the Salisbury plain, toward Stonehenge (the ‘Henge’) in the distance.

He befriends an inhabitant of the “way”, a farm laborer named Jack, and subsequently learns of the last day of Jack’s life, spent in a drive down to the pub for a few beers with his friends and then what must have been an agonizing drive home to his cottage and for him the end of the line. Naipaul finds Jack’s death “poetical and noble”, an affirmation of Jack’s life.

After Jack’s death the rest of the “novel” covers more arrivals, which Naipaul from his vantage point as a writer and outsider measures against Jack’s. This is not a “sad” story, or a “sad pastoral” as Salmund Rushdie says. Naipaul prizes his rationality and suffered more than his share of grief so he can’t allow himself to be sentimental or maudlin, especially when the writer in him discovers the metaphor of the “way”. The story is about how people arrive. The characters reach a place where they have a past, not much future and nowhere to go. Naipaul, accutely aware of his own history and the irony of arriving at a place where the British empire started at the time of its end, makes a point of accepting his arrival, and expunges all sentimentality and self-delusional mumbo jumbo often conjured up about end points. Get over yourself, he says, enjoy the trip right up to the end.

Life is a Highway, by Tom Cochrane

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Posted in: Life