It just doesn’t seem the right moment for him to go. But then when exactly is the right moment for death? When is the loss of a cherished one ever acceptable or less painful to those left behind? Abiola Irele was (was!!) one of those who should never have left, but live on forever.
No, it is hard to concede to death the loss of such a magnificent, lovely man as Abiola Irele.
Several glowing accolades have been written since the news of his demise broke out this week, but I doubt if any of the words we write will ever successfully capture the comprehensive robustness of the man’s life or personality, or the profound grief that his abrupt exit has left in our heart.
For me, the personal loss is immeasurable. He had been a teacher, then friend and mentor, patron and publisher, and many other pleasurable things.
In our earlier days, many years ago, we had even become ardent drinking partners, adventurously traversing the thirsty roads between Ibadan and Cotonou, Lomé and Accra, Abidjan and Dakar, where some bars and bottles must still remember us.
It was his name I knew first before I met him.
He was already a towering figure in the French and francophone intellectual circles but based outside the country when I started my academic career. But then, to my great pleasure, he was announced one day as one of my co-supervisors by the University Senate at Ibadan.
Subsequently, shortly afterwards, he came visiting to Présence Africaine in Paris, and our first meeting occurred on a memorable day at the Latin Quarter.
He came looking like one of the habitués of the city’s once-celebrated salons, handsome, elegant, urbane, and endowed with an immediately noticeable degree of personal charm.
He had a seductive presence that one associated with media showbiz, and not normally with the academic profession; from the very first minute, he put me completely at ease.
In the course of time, I would also come into the spell of his other irresistible assets, such as his infectious sense of humour and his open, conspicuous love for living—for life at the raw, for wine and for song.
So, teacher and student, master and apprentice with kindred spirits, we bonded strongly and it has been ever since for me an endlessly enriching relationship. There could never be a dull moment in his company.
But Irele’s apparently flippant exterior, his buoyant cultivation of the manners of the bon vivant, was a deceptive guise. It masked a deep inner core of acute, insightful intelligence, which demanded no less perspicacity from his interlocutors and companions. Whenever he began to talk, not a few were discomfited, or mesmerized, by the extensive sweep of his knowledge and erudition, and the sheer beauty of his elocution. I learnt a lot at his feet.
Irele was suave and cultured, polyvalent and cosmopolitan; he was blessed with lithe and nimble feet for dancing, an ear for languages, and a voice for mellifluous song. He was at home with the old masters in philosophy and literature just as much as he was abreast of the most recent schools and movements.
He was also an eager patron of talent, always seeking out young seeds to help nurse into efflorescence. Very much a Renaissance man indeed, he shared, with the late Stanley Macebuh, many of the qualities we associate with wisdom, polish and refinement.
For all of these, Irele was of course not perfect. No man ever is. He could be maddeningly petulant at times, just like a child. And on other occasions his brittle temper could flare into quite unnecessary conflagration.
But I can testify that those occasions were never frequent nor prolonged, nor deliberately nasty, out of intention to harm. In any case, as we know now with great men, these are inevitable weaknesses we must all learn to endure in the end, in compensation for the ineffable beneficences of their genius.
Oh Egbon, I am swamped by memories of you and of the times we spent together; there are so many things to remember. But let me end now with this one which I believe says a lot about the impact one unwittingly leaves on others.
This was the scene I witnessed some months ago in Ilorin, when I arrived at your house, and found some workers—gardeners, drivers, house helps, etc.—gathered around your windows, peeping inside, all in apparent troubled anxiety.
Alarmed, fearing the worst, I hurried forward to see what was amiss, only to discover that they had all been drawn there by what they thought was a bizarre spectacle going on inside—a strange cacophony of unintelligible sounds issuing out from loudspeakers, and an obviously possessed Prof Irele bellowing away in accompaniment, in total oblivion of the rest of the world!
Well, I finally got you to lower the volume of the Puccini you were playing and open the door. As you emerged, the workers fled back in respectful haste, henceforth eternally awed by this obviously disguised onisegun in their midst, caught in the throes of some unknown ritual.
Egbon, Olohun-iyo, are you still singing your songs?
Goodbye then. We will continue to struggle on, till we too are summoned. But the world has grown more lonely now in the silence of your voice. Goodbye.