Pitton the Bucolic Peacock
Mainstream Western society often upholds fashion as frivolous; intellectuals may call the competition inherent to the high fashion world detrimental to one’s emotional health. A clotheshorse is a nincompoop, or at the very least a self-centered and materialistic human being. True or not, fashion forms identity and reveals many social indicators. Clothes position certain cultural markers—masculine vs. feminine, rich vs. poor, educated vs. uneducated, etc. – at face value and help reinforce stereotypes and mythologies. Trite as it may sound, a picture merits at least a thousand words, and the picture an outfit presents is no different.
The narrator in Naipaul’s The Arrival of Enigma recognizes this fact. After all, he spends 354 pages using fashion to make inferences about his neighbors’ socio-economic status, intelligence, values, and ambitions, thus characterizing himself as an ex-patriot desperate to shed his “other.” He is desperate to kill of his old self, but, as he kills, he also grieves in studying tweed, hats, and socks. These are details that allow the narrator to deny his murder of his own self, putting the other murders in the book in stark relief to his own.
The narrator builds himself up in the mind of the reader not by painting a vivid illustration, rich with physical description and a catalogue of personal experiences, but by talking about the social lives and personal habits of those around him. Through his observations of Pitton’s attire in particular, he renders himself as someone who wants to escape the stigma of coming from the margins of empire.
One of his longest mentions of Pitton’s attire begins as follows:
Yet in Pitton's fashionableness, his careful but regular buying of clothes that matched the seasons and were meant for that season's wear, in this very steadiness, this absence of waste, there was something in the ritual. Clothes and the seasons ritualized Pitton's year. There was a time for the felt hat and the three-piece suit, thornproof. There was a time for the straw hat; there was a time when the three-piece suit became a two-piece. There was a time for pullovers, one pullover, two pullovers. There was a time for 'country shirts, a time for lighter shirts; a time for a quilted jacket; a time for a dark, thin, plastic raincoat. His dress was absolutely suited to the work he was doing and the time of year. In that fine judgment about clothes and the weather, as well as in his steadiness, his physical pacing of himself, lay Pitton's extraordinary neatness. (229)
This is exactly how Pitton hopes to present himself; truthfully, he is all about pretension. He implies he has other sources of income, as if to say gardening is a hobby, not a means of supporting himself. When the narrator visits Pitton’s home, he astonishedly realizes that Pitton lives in near poverty. Pitton, dressed in his usual elegant attire, makes up reasons for the home not being decorated. It should come as no surprise then that when Pitton falls from social graces and loses his job as a gardener, he becomes a laundryman. He may have to abandon his life as he knows it, but Pitton will never abandon his clothes. Doing so would mean abandoning his pride: “And in his clothes, his appearance, his refusal to look like a gardener or farm worker, a laborer, lay much of his pride” (229).
To quote a Spanish expression the narrator may know, “Mono vestido de seda, mono queda. [You can put a monkey in a silk dress, but it is still a monkey].” Pittonmay be fooling others about the cachet tied to being the manor’s only gardener, but he does not fool the narrator. He understands that a gardener is still a gardener, however much at odds an English gardener may be with a Trinidadian gardener. The narrator implies that Pitton dresses in disregard to his class because he is “proud” (229), even vain (233). There may even be a certain amount of haughtiness bubbling in Pitton's:
And in his three-piece tweed suit he looked so unlike a gardener or any sort of manual labor; he so studiously avoided looking at my cottage, so carefully kept his distance, kept to the far path; that I thought he was going on through the back of the manor grounds some quite different duties, and in opening the white gate was simply exercising some old public right of way. (227)
The narrator attunes himself to appearances in England because, growing up in Trinidad, he encountered few visual depictions of actual British life and society. As a boy, he allowed words, the stuff of poetry and novels, to influence his perception of England. As an adult in England, he receives constant and real visual stimulation of the people and culture (which, of course, he continually misreads). What he sees often contradicts his boyhood fantasies. Growing up, the narrator associated gardeners with the landed peasantry who worked sugar plantations (224). He could not have imagined a neat and refined gardener like Pitton, let alone, perhaps, a white one:
This kind of gardening was a town occupation, barely above, perhaps even merging into, that of “yard boy,” which was an occupation for black people, and something so unskilled and debased that the very words were used a form of abuse. (225)
After observing his neighbors and the truths and lies revealed through their clothes, the narrator does not genuinely want to return to England, either. Yet, forced to choose between his two comfort levels, he acknowledges that England will grant him greater room for opportunity in publishing and journalism. Even a gardener like Pitton, someone with a relatively low social status, can live life wearing a handsome three-piece tweed suit in England. In Trinidad, that same man might be lucky to own a single dress shirt. Going up the social ladder—consider the rung of writer or journalist, for instance—the opportunities simply expand from there. In that respect, the colonizer outperforms the colony. In his depictions of Trinidad, the narrator never mentions clothing. Motivated by literary aspirations, the narrator then decides to move back to England.
In his 1987 review of the book, Rushdie calls The Enigma of Arrival “more meditation than novel” (The Guardian, 3 March 1987). The narrator does not thrive on action; he thrives on study and thought, often criticism. He has devoted his life to study, explaining why the novel fails to follow a standard three-act structure rife with conflict. The narrator lives so much inside of his head that he has few life experiences to use as a point of reference, instead relying upon literature and cinema as a basis for comparison. Since his days in Trinidad, the narrator has studied artistic representations of England, but it is only after coming to the U.K. that life has a chance to contradict his preconceived notions.
In contradicting his preconceived notions of the English and in gradually assimilating himself to the colonizer’s culture, the narrator kills off his old self. This is, after all, a book about death: “Death and the way of handling it---that was the motif of the story of Jack” (344). But it was also the story of the narrator, his death, and how he handles that murder/death.
Clothes make the man, or so believes the narrator. Otherwise he would not devote so much time and ‘wordsmithery’ to fashion, not just in the case of Pitton, but in the case of almost every other character he encounters—the black man in Harlem with his too-tight jacket, Angela with her luxurious fur coat, Brenda with her blouses tied in a knot above her navel. And the more the narrator examines the meaning of clothes and why people where the clothes they do, the more insightful the narrator becomes about English culture and its contradictions, the more the narrator changes, evolving from his Trinidadian self, assuming a new body and a new identity, equipped with a new mentality and set of disillusionments.
Judging by the narrator’s observations and how they characterize him, calling him a brown Uncle Tom may be a strong accusation. More accurately, the narrator is an amateur cultural anthropologist, a keen mental recorder and note-taker, whose writings indicate an enthusiasm to learn and perhaps rectify personal assumptions about a culture he thought he had always known. Studying fashion helps the narrator achieve this end—an end that however critical or cruel is far from frivolous.