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The Artifice of Eternity - An exclusive, Raffles-inspired short story by award-winning Ben Okri


Words: Ben Okri    Illustrations: Jackie Parsons


For a long time he had been trying to get to Byzantium. He had started the journey many times and had found that whenever he set out his journey always became complicated. On one occasion he realised he was in another city without knowing how he got there. Sometimes his journeys took on a mind of their own. They took him not where he wanted to go, but where the journey wanted. This desire to get to Byzantium had now become to him something of an impossibility. For twenty years he had set out at the same time of year to get to Byzantium. He would get out his maps, and would spend hours studying all the routes by which to get there. He had dreamed of trains there, had considered walking, and had been tempted to try an obscure method, that of being borne there by birds. Nothing was too excessive for accomplishing a task that fate has made difficult.

The years had passed with no possibility of the journey being undertaken. He had collected pictures and drawings, paintings and lithographs of Byzantium. He had read poems and travel journals, had sought out travellers' tales and ancient legends. He had approached Byzantium as one approaches a famed kingdom beyond seven mountains that only rare travellers return from with gold-rimmed eyes. He had approached, but had found no doors by which to get there. Every poem was a closed castle, each drawing was a hieroglyph, and each traveller's tale was a riddle. He had begun to think that Byzantium existed in a world separate from this one, where blue dragons breathe and topaz leopards play, a world that is reached only through lost journeys or a sideways transportation into a halfway realm.

He had kept his hopes for this journey to himself. He had never made sordid his dream of Byzantium by telling it to anyone. It is was his secret image and destination. In some ways it was his destiny.

Many years ago, as if fate wanted to tempt him with that which he sought but could not reach, he received a mysterious invitation to go to Byzantium. He was being asked to be on a panel of image-interpreters. The letter had puzzled him. Its formality, its circuity, made it seem as if it were addressed not to an individual but to a group. Nonetheless he replied to the letter diligently and awaited an answer. A date had been given for the conference, which was to take place in its capital city on the shores of the Bosphorus. It began to seem to him as if the closed gate of his dreams had begun to open, that the fates had been appeased.

It began to seem to him as if the closed gate of his dreams had begun to open, that the fates had been appeased

He had begun to submit to an ancient legend that said that there is one place on this earth that each person cannot get to, and that if they do a most mysterious fate awaits them. Each person has his or her Paris that is inaccessible to them, their Rome they would set out for and never arrive at, their Lagos that is mysteriously forbidden them. The legend has it that the key to that place closed to each individual is held by one of the three sisters of fate who hold the keys to our destiny.

That he had now been invited to Byzantium seemed to him a sign that the key to his fated realm had been turned in the locks beyond the stars. He wondered what his mysterious fate, one possibly fatal or revelatory, would be in that city when he broke through the great veil that had been preventing him getting there these last twenty years. It would be Summer in Byzantium and he dreamed of white swans on the river. In one of his dreams though he dreamed of a black swan and awoke perplexed at what it meant. Places that we have wanted to go to and have not managed to succeed in doing so exert on us a profound fascination. Sometimes this could be the next village. It could even be a museum in the very city in which you live. It could be an alleyway just off your street. It could be a letter that you are waiting for, which never arrives

That they never replied to his application, or that the reply had somehow got lost in the mysterious postal services, only confirmed to him that the key opening the lock to his destiny had not been turned. He waited weeks, then months, for a reply. He wrote to them several times. It was as if fate were playing a game with his dearest hopes. But the game that fate played only deepened his dreams.

It would seem that our desire for something increases in direct proportion to the obstacles preventing our achieving it. The perverse might think that the desire is the obstacle. None of these speculations occurred to him. When one opportunity faded he went back to making plans, looking at maps, consulting ancient books in the libraries about the weather in Byzantium. Slowly it became a living place in his imagination. Is there anything more real than that which we have created in our own minds, with all the force of our ignorance and our imaginations? This is what he did, slowly, by accretion.

It would seem that our desire for something increases in direct proportion to the obstacles preventing our achieving it

By day he visited this place that was on the margins of his mind. This place lived alongside his daily work, his everyday tasks. By night he inhabited this realm. Its markets and its mosques, its parks and its churches, the roads that led to the river, the muted light over its city in the evenings, the eastern origins of its language became his delight. All he had to do was shut his eyes and he was there again. It was what he looked forward to most in the day. For weeks and months he lived like this, in two realms. Each day his daily life meant less to him than his dream life to this place which the closed doors of destiny had bequeathed him a special freedom. As his daily life grew more confined, this dream life acquired more liberty. Slowly he became a shadow in the city where he lived. Slowly the world ceased to notice him. He passed into daily insubstantiality. But in his dreams he acquired form and body and freedom. He acquired growing mastery of this secret domain. As he lost the city of the day, he gained the city of his dreams.

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