I will never know how i got there, but there was just something alluringly weird about this antiquated mansion where I found myself. Clad in an indigenously Fulani dashiki I couldn’t remember buying, I groped my way around this place which was well beyond all electronic maps and intelligence radars. Something about the thick darkness egged me on, as I supported myself with the walls of the hallway.
It must have been fifty minutes or so later when I bumped my head against what turned out to be a door. With what was left of my fatigued frame, I gave it a push and predictably I fell to the floor as it gave way. I was however reinvigorated by the sight that greeted my eyes. It was a large hall beautifully lit by flame torches, and in the middle of it stood the widest table I had ever seen. The table was surrounded with chairs of all shapes and designs, from wooden tripods to straw stools. There was something incredibly solemn about the hall, an air of greatness impossible to ignore. No one was seated at table however, so I chose to probe further and survey the hall.
In twenty decades I couldn’t have imagined what next I saw. At a corner of the hall were Aristotle and Plato playing what looked like a B.C. version of Chess, with Cicero watching closely, impatiently eager to take on whoever won. ”I’ll be lucky to play today, their last game lasted for two days”, Cicero said to me. Besides cracking 2nd century B.C jokes and teasing one another’s hairstyle, this game was all they were about. They had probably accepted the fact that the ideals expressed in their works were now mere Utopian concepts.
Awestruck but even more curious, I moved further. Not too far off sat the Greek poet Homer. Watching him engage in deep soliloquy, I doubted that he would ever know how much power lay in his poems Troy and Odyssey. I wondered how so much life could be invoked on paper that it had been subjected to several re-creations, of which Brad Pitt (Achilles) and Armand Assante (Odysseus), for all their acting prowess, could only muster a faint reflection of Homer’s imagery. The stool occupied by Homer had only minutes before been occupied by William Shakespeare. That was a man who in his time redefined the art of writing and indeed the English language. Transcending cultures, he had invented a number of words used today, including the term ”swagger”, which was the only way to describe the manner with which he now moved towards The Table. I wanted to ask why he didn’t try to simplify the language employed in his works, but then I was afraid of being the object of the aggression which he still harboured from being unable to eat his Easter eggs on the day he was last seen alive in 1616.
There had to be more, I mused. As i probed further with my eyes and feet, I would find Jonathan Swift, Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain engaged in a fierce argument about whose novel provided more adventure in its day. Swift stoutly defended ”Gulliver’s Travels”, R. L. Stevenson made a case for ”Treasure Island” and Twain felt ”Tom Sawyer” was more superior. They were eventually hushed by a shrill voice, that of Charles Dickens. There I was, face to face with a man who did a great job at penning down the socio-economic situation of his time, aptly expressed in ”Oliver Twist” and ”A Christmas Carol”. He asked me how London fared, and showed no emotion at my response.
My first reaction to finding Niccolo Machiavelli seated on a pentagram-shaped mat was to stare at him in hateful admiration. I wondered where he derived the principles highlighted in ”The Prince”, principles which had been applied by tyrants centuries after its publication, and had wreaked havoc on generations. As if he could read my thoughts, he muttered, ”The Prince? Oh well it was necessary for Italy at the time.” I still itched to interrogate him when I felt a firm hand on my right shoulder. The hand was that of H. Rider Haggard, the mind responsible for ”King’s Solomon’s Mines” and ”Allan Quatermain”, pioneer works of the Lost World literary genre which dwelt on the (then) unexplored regions of Africa. Rider Haggard was in a matter of seconds called away. it was his turn to guide John Milton to The Table, since the latter had mysteriously lost the bronze walking stick which aided his movement. I took a deep breath as I looked in admiration at Milton, who didn’t let his impaired vision stand in the way of ”Paradise Lost” and other offshoots of his poetry.
The sight of Christopher Marlowe and Oscar Wilde chatting away did much to fuel the atmosphere. They had been comparing their respective works ”Doctor Faustus” and ”The Picture Of Dorian Gray”, which had both centred on characters trading their souls for temporary bliss. Marlowe, still bearing the scar from the mortal wound sustained to his head in 1593, laughed when I told him how England presently looked like, screaming, ”and they called me a heretic!” Wilde, ever eager to give lectures on hedonism and fun-seeking, grinned when I told him of his words ”The love of oneself is a lifelong romance” being one of my favourite quotes.
A few steps further, and I was soon amusing myself watching George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway try to serenade Mary Ann Evans (known in books as George Eliot.) I marvelled at the imagery employed by Orwell in ”Animal Farm” (actually a political satire) and he sighed when he found that the world was now full of so much government propaganda and media control which he illustrated in ”1984”. Hemingway still bore the scar of his shotgun wound self-inflicted in 1961, and I had half a mind to ask why he gave up on himself, when ironically ”The Old Man And The Sea” centred on the themes of hope and resilience. I could understand why Evans chose to adopt the pen name George; the life of an Englishwoman between the 17th and 19th century was rather hard and there was no way ”Silas Marner” would have gone as far as it did if the cover print had bore Mary Anne. The mood was soon ruined by A. E. Housman’s morbid musings. Typical Housman, who in his time avoided love and preached about early death in poems like ”To An Athlete Dying Young.”
A debate was brewing among Richard Wright, Christopher Okigbo, Peter Abrahams and Cyprian Ekwensi at the farthest left corner of the hall. The quartet had found one another most comfortable to relate with since their arrival at the mansion, and in all their verbal spars, agreed that a lot had changed for Cush’s descendants. Abrahams couldnt believe that the South Africa illustrated in ”Mine Boy” was now controlled by people of his complexion, and Richard Wright had to laugh when I told him that the U.S.A was presently ruled by an African-American, a feat that could never have been envisaged when ”Black Boy” was published. Okigbo was mad at the fact that the Biafran dream, for which he abandoned his poetry for rifles and earned himself a room in the mansion, had since faded away. Ekwensi on the other hand couldnt believe the violent mess which Northern Nigeria, the scene for ”Burning Grass” and ”The Passport Of Mallam Ilia”, had been reduced to. From time to time they beckoned on newcomer Chinua Achebe to join them, but he declined, preferring to sit alone on his wheelchair with a permanent scowl on his face, brooding about what his country and his people had become. Never had there been a book which sealed a nation’s mood and spelt out its underlying socio-political divide like ”There Was A Country” did.
Thirty minutes or so later, and The Table got surrounded with all these heroes occupying every chair, ready for supper. I had been hesitant to join, feeling most unworthy, but Dickens reassured me with the words ”get your backside some comfort, lad, and pamper that belly of yours”.
”Yes, you may sit here until someone new shows up, maybe Wole (Soyinka) or (Ngugi) Wa Thiongo”, Achebe joined in. ”Those two should know that their time there isnt exactly in abundant figures.”
My mind was a perfect combination of excitement and nervousness as I threw questions to each of these great writers past, from their source of inspiration, to their love lives, to their struggles with society. I mentioned J.K. Rawlings’ ”Harry Potter”, met with a collective sneer except from William Butler Yeats, known for his interest in astrology and occultism which reflected in his poems. When I talked about how many sales had been generated by E.L’s ”Fifty Shades Of Grey”, an air of disappointment could be felt all around the table. They could not understand why ideas were now so lacking in Literature that Sex had to become the major theme of an entire piece.
Supper that day was roast beef and soup, the kind of soup described in ”Oliver Twist” as strong enough for two hundred and fifty persons if enough water was added. It had been prepared by Charles and Mary Lamb, best known for transliterating Shakespeare’s works into simple prosaic form. Getting my mud chair in positions, I got my hands on the beef and reached for a bite…..
If my pillow were a living thing, it would have screamed from having my teeth sunk so deep into it. No, this was no hall, this was my bedroom located somewhere in one of Nigeria’s southern states. ”Did I really have to wake up from that?”, I repeatedly asked myself. All at once I yearned to be in that mansion, that table, seated next to Achebe. I didnt want to wait a decade longer. Questions began to seep into my mind, from my ability to live a solitary life, to the ability to withstand societal opposition and ridicule, to the possibility of health risks. Then my eyes darted around the room, meeting with a dark suit, a Manchester United jersey and a video game console as they went along. After minutes of dwelling on future plans and deciding that I was not yet ready for that mud chair, I heaved a deep sigh and shut my eyes as Sleep locked me once again in her warm embrace.