I was a palm-wine drinkard since I was a boy of ten years of age. I had no other work more than to drink palm-wine in my life.
An auspicious beginning! Our narrator comes from a wealthy family and is able to spend all his days drinking, treating his friends to drinks, and then drinking more. Alas, our drinkard’s idyllic life cannot last forever: one day his favorite tapster drinks too much, falls out of a tree, and dies. No one else taps palm-wine like he did, and the narrator feels lost and purposeless. That is, until he has a life-changing revelation:
When I saw that there was no palm-wine for me again, and nobody could tap it for me, then I thought within myself that old people were saying that the whole people who had died in this world, did not go to heaven directly, but they were living in one place somewhere in this world. So that I said that I would find out where my palm-wine tapster who died was.
One fine morning, I took all my native juju and also my father’s juju with me and I left my father’s hometown to find out the whereabouts was my tapster who had died.
Thus begins the long, rambling, picaresque adventures of Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard and his dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads’ Town, following the narrator as he travels “from bushes to bushes and for forests to forests” in search of the Deads’ Town, hoping against hope that he’ll be able to convince his tapster to come back home and tap more wine for him. Along the way he’ll encounter gods, monsters, giants, spirits, wraiths, towns where everyone is red, towns where everyone walks backwards, dance parties inside of trees, murderous hordes of babies, and magic eggs. He’ll take a wife along the way, have a monstrous baby “with a lower voice like a telephone” (that she produces from her thumb), destroy the baby in a fire, and as punishment, have a “half-bodied baby” grow out of the ashes and pester them until he disappears after living embodiments of Drums, Dance, and Song into a “place built in the form of a premises.” He’ll make and use various forms of juju, transform himself into other creatures, receive magical items to help him on his quest, and come to “sell” his death and “lend out” his fear. And we’re only scratching the surface here.
Taken at face value, The Palm-Wine Drinkard is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Tutuola piles incident on incident — this is a story with absolutely no fat — and the narrator responds to even the most unusual encounters with the same terse matter-of-factness. Take, for example, the famous encounter with the “complete” gentleman, a beautiful and finely dressed spirit who lures a young lady (the narrator’s future wife) away from a town market. As she follows the gentleman, she finds that all of his body parts are actually just rentals, which he returns one-by-one as he heads home (e.g. “they reached where he hired the belly, ribs, chest etc., then he pulled them out and gave them to the owner and paid for the rentage”), up to and including the flesh covering his head. The woman learns the truth too late, powerless to escape this malevolent spirit: “When the lady saw that she remained with only Skull, she began to say that her father had been telling her to marry a man but she did not listen to or believe him.”
The narrator’s wry commentary is a brief chapter title: “Do not follow unknown man’s beauty.” But he takes it back when he sees the “complete” gentleman for himself:
I could not blame the lady for following the Skull as a complete gentleman to his house at all. Because if I were a lady, no doubt I would follow him to wherever he would go, and still as I was a man I would jealous him more than that, because if this gentleman went to the battle field, surely, enemy would not kill him or capture him and if bombers saw him in a town which was to be bombed, they would not throw bombs in his presence, and if they did throw it, the bomb itself would not explode until this gentleman would leave that town, because of his beauty.
Funny, dry, imaginative… but is it good? It’d be easy enough to say “if you like it, if it works for you, it’s good,” but I think that dodges the kinds of questions we’re always grappling with on this site. And a lot may depend on how we interpret such tricky concepts as “intent.” Take, for example, the most obvious marker of Tutuola’s art: the language itself. You may have noticed that it’s what we’d call “non-standard” English. Is this 1) a consequence of Tutuola’s interrupted education, or 2) a reflection of Yoruba oral-storytelling syntax, or 3) a personal style choice based on direct manipulation of the language? Western aesthetics tends to privilege 3 most of all, but (in certain circumstances) may also highly value 2. What if the particular mix here (it’s always a mix) leans heavily on 1? Does that have a place in our aesthetic values, too?
The most unavoidable fact of Tutuola’s heritage is that reception of his work has been controversial ever since the publication of The Palm-Wine Drinkard, and there are still high-profile writers in his native Nigeria who consider him artless and overrated. it’s hard to avoid the way that any assessments of the Tutuola’s aesthetic merits are inextricable from colonialist politics, and if you’ve spent any time with colonialist reception, you may be able to predict the somewhat inside-out way that this manifested. The Palm-Wine Drinkard was published to rave reviews… from England, while it struggled with readers back home. It was ignored and in some cases strongly rejected by many in Nigeria, who felt that Tutuola’s barely literate scribblings only reinforced the view that Nigerians themselves were, well… barely literate savages.
There are elements of class envy in the latter, but their fears were also not wrong, at least in terms of what they saw reflected in Western reviews: no small part of Tutuola’s initial success seemed to grow out of an appreciation for certain values that have always plagued colonial reception: in a word, reviewers loved the “authenticity” of its savage jungle fantasy, its “primitive magic.” Its first reviewer, Dylan Thomas, called it “thronged, grisly… bewitching” and “devilish”: it was his review that launched Tutuola to international fame, the first English-language West African writer to make that claim. More on the “authenticity” side, William Golding praised it in an interview as “a kind of fantasy of West African mythology all told in West African English which, of course, is not the same as standard English.” Nigerian commenters were at pains to point out that Tutuola’s English sounded nothing like West African English, and of course, a certain Igbo writer named Chinua Achebe was just around the corner with his Shakespearean Things Fall Apart to offer a preemptive rejoinder to the racial essentialism of critics like Saul Bellow. Achebe, for his part, had nicer things things to say about Tutuola, and Nobel Prize winner and fellow Yoruba author Wole Soyinka has defended Tutuola’s contributions to Nigerian literature.
(There are literally whole books on this, and I’m far outside my comfort zone here, so I’ll drop a couple of links I found especially helpful for understanding the context here: Ebe Ofolo Eko’s dissertation on English and American reception of Tutuola, Achebe, and Soyinka (here) and Mackenzie Finley’s article on Tutuola’s troublesome relationship with the Nigerian literary elite (here).)
At any rate, what I have as a naive reader is this: a funny, inventive, witty, often sad journey of a man whose only real love is for sweet palm-wine. Tutuola offers us a cosmology that seems sui generis in its constantly shifting rules, sometimes in ways that are laugh-out-loud funny. When the drinkard eventually locates his tapster in the Deads’ town, this is how the tapster describes his path there:
He said that after he had died in my town, he went to a certain place, which anybody who just died must go to first, because a person who just died could not come here (Deads’ Town) directly. He said that when he reached there, he spent two years in training and after he had qualified as a full dead man, then he came to this Deads’ Town.
Two years of training to be a full dead! Every page of this book offers a new and unexpected twist, but Tutuola saves what is maybe the best for last: a bittersweet ending that seems to rise above the mundane world of palm-wine and bushes and crafty, juju-wielding narrators. It soars into transcendent myth and falls again in life-giving rain.