Published in 1952, the Nigerian author Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard tells the story of a man who is such a dedicated drunk that when his personal palm-wine tapster dies, cutting off his supply, he goes on a quest into the bush to find the Dead’s Town and bring the man back. The bush is the bush of Yoruban folklore, populated by an array of dangerous spirits, ghosts, and gods, but our hero has his own juju and an unassailable self-belief; asked his name, he replies glibly: ‘Father of gods who could do anything in this world’.
The book is written in Tutuola’s idiosyncratic Yoruban English, and the language travels unpredictably through various registers, routinely violating conventional grammar to both comedic and poetic effect. The plot is full of surreal wit; in a typical episode, the drinkard and his wife find a colossal white tree in the bush, which they enter through a door. They would normally find this terrifying, but ‘before we entered inside the white tree, we had “sold our death” to somebody at the door for the sum of £70: 18: 6d and “lent our fear” to somebody at the door as well on interest of £3: 10: 0d per month, so we did not care about death and we did not fear again.’ On departing from the tree, they retrieve their fear, but the buyer of their death refuses to part with it. After that, they know they can’t die, and whenever something menaces them, the wife says: ‘This is only fear for the heart but not dangerous to the heart.’
The Palm-Wine Drinkard has always been beloved by readers, but its reception by critics has been at best uneven. After Dylan Thomas lauded it, other Western intellectuals felt compelled to read it, only to dismiss it as ‘primitive,’ ‘naive,’ and ‘barbaric.’ Meanwhile many African intellectuals felt its ungrammatical English, tales of spirits, and unapologetic celebration of boozing played into the worst European stereotypes of African people. There has been an enduring unwillingness to admit that any merit in the book is the result of Tutuola’s abilities as a writer. On its first publication, the New York Times called its style ‘unwilled’ and said the interest of the text had ‘nothing to do with its author’s intentions.’ Forty-five years later, the author Michael Swanwick wrote in an obituary of Tutuola: ‘I do not know if Amos Tutuola was a literary genius or merely a conduit for the storytelling genius of his people.’ Even Nigerians have often been cautious about the merits of the book; the writer Nnedi Okorafor, while admiring it, also denigrates its style, saying, ‘I don’t see it as a style, I see it as Tutuola’s English not being strong (it wasn’t his first language) and him needing an editor.’
While not wishing to make assumptions about Amos Tutuola’s state of mind in the early 1950s, my impression has always been that he has his own very deliberate aesthetic – one that owes a debt both to the Yoruba language and oral storytelling – and tuning into it can enrich our idea of what a literary style can be. And regardless of whether you attribute the success of the book to Tutuola’s genius or just to the richness of Yoruban folklore, it’s an undeniably amazing read: bizarre, exquisite, consistently hilarious, and at once lighthearted and profound.
Photograph © Sue