We have before us a book with a peculiar name. It is called The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Dead’s Town, by Amos Tutuola.
Let us gather around this object and poke it with a stick — but gingerly, because at any moment it may transform itself into a bird, or a lizard, or a canoe, or the air itself.
The Palm-Wine Drinkard is a hard book to describe. Is it even a novel? Randall Jarrell defined a novel as a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it. The Palm-Wine Drinkard certainly meets that definition. The trouble is that this one has so many things wrong with it. It suffers from a catalog of apparent deformities of grammar, punctuation, diction, chronology, consistency, and tone. And yet it lives.
This is the story of a man whose life revolves around the drinking of palm wine, the sweet and cloudy beverage brewed from the sap of the palm tree. His tapster, who remains unnamed for many pages, falls from a tall palm and is killed. The Drinkard buries the body and sets out to find the tapster in the land of the dead, encountering supernatural perils along the way.
The Palm-Wine Drinkard is an editor’s nightmare, beginning with the very word “drinkard.” Drinkard is not an English word, but Tutuola presumably felt that “drinker” was not strong enough for someone who could put away 225 kegs of palm wine in a day. “Drunkard,” on the other hand, suggests drunkenness, and the palm-wine drinkard never seems to get drunk.
On page 24 of The Palm-Wine Drinkard, Grove Press reproduced a page of Tutuola’s neat round cursive, with the caption “A page from the author’s MS. showing the publisher’s ‘corrections’.” Presumably this refers to George Braziller, the original publisher. The number of edits is actually quite modest considering the very irregular state of the text. From the state of the published book, it seems obvious that the editors eventually gave up and let it be what it was.
Tutuola has a special way with spelling and punctuation, not unlike the 18th century English writers who believed that only a dullard would spell a word the same way twice. Quotation marks are used for emphasis as well as for speech, and are coupled with large or small caps for added effect. The chapter “A FULL-BODIED GENTLEMAN REDUCED TO HEAD” describes the transformation of the strikingly handsome “complete gentleman” who has led away the beautiful daughter of a townsman.
Now this complete gentleman was reduced to head and when they reached where he hired the skin and flesh which covered the head, he returned them, and paid to the owner, now the complete gentleman in the market reduced to a “SKULL” and this lady remained with only “Skull”. 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.
In a couple of steps, the shock of seeing a man reduced to “SKULL” has been gradually reduced to the acceptable oddity of speaking to a mere Skull.
In an illuminating interview, Tutuola’s son Yinka notes that his father “preferred direct translation of the Yoruba words, thoughts and usage into English word-for-word.” As Molara Ogundipe-Leslie puts it, Amos Tutuola used English words as “counters … basically speaking Yoruba but using English words.”
This may account for the oddness of phrases like “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” — as well as seemingly pan-African traits like the use of “too” to mean “very.” But it is only the beginning of the oddness.
The genres and influences of The Palm-Wine Drinkard spray out in all directions. In places it seems to be a traditional origin story that explains how things came to be the way they are. Early in the book, echoing Greek myth, the Drinkard meets an old man who turns out to be a god. The old man gives him a strong net, with which he sets out to capture Death.
Death’s household combines the grisly atmosphere of the old Weird Tales with an echo of another Greek myth, that of the Procrustean bed.
He took me around his house and his yam garden too, he showed me the skeleton bones of human-beings which he had killed since a century ago and showed me many other things also, but there I saw that he was using skeleton bones of human-beings as fuel woods and skull heads of human-beings as his basins, plates and tumblers etc.
Nobody was living near or with him there, he was living lonely, even bush animals and birds were very far away from his house. So when I wanted to sleep at night, he gave me a wide black cover cloth and then gave me a separate room to sleep inside, but when I entered the room, I met a bed which was made with bones of human-beings; but as this bed was terrible to look at or to sleep on it, I slept under it instead, because I knew his trick already.
Death creeps in and savagely bludgeons the bed, but the Drinkard escapes with his life. He digs a pit in the road, captures Death, and carries him back to the old man, but when he throws down his captive, the net breaks and Death escapes. “So that since the day that I had brought Death out from his house, he has no permanent place to dwell or stay, and we are hearing his name about in the world.”
Though this is apparently a world without Christianity, the Drinkard’s quest for his tapster sometimes suggests The Pilgrim’s Progress, in which abstract concepts like Obstinate and Pliable take on solid (though rather wooden) existence. Here we have a character called “Invisible-Pawn” or “Give and Take,” whose double name alerts the Drinkard’s wife (but not the Drinkard) that he should not be relied upon. Three men from the forest named Drum, Song, and Dance stage a grand performance that draws “the whole people of the new town, the whole people that rose up from the grave, animals, snakes, spirits and other nameless creatures.” Since then, we are told, “nobody could see the three fellows personally, but we are only hearing their names about in the world.”
As his son relates, Amos Tutuola spent his annual leave recording folktales among the people of his village. But to attribute the strangeness of this book to Yoruba culture is too easy. Forest of a Thousand Daemons by D.O. Fagunwa is another product of Yoruba oral culture, but it reads quite differently. Translated from the Yoruba language by no less than Wole Soyinka, it also tells of strange forest creatures, including a smoke monster that boils up from a crack in the ground to form a menacing figure carrying a sword. (The writers of the TV series Lost, which featured the Yoruba character Mr. Eko, apparently took notice.) But Forest of a Thousand Daemons is a tamer, more formal, and more structured performance than The Palm-Wine Drinkard.
The Palm-Wine Drinkard is peppered with modern-day references: one indication that Tutuola is creating original stories, not just repeating traditional tales. The prices of things are sometimes given in cowries but more often appear in pounds, shillings, and pence. The “complete gentleman,” we are told, is so handsome that “if bombers saw him in a town which was to be bombed, they would not throw bombs on his presence, and if they did throw it, the bomb itself would not explode.” When the Drinkard’s wife stirs up the ashes of a burned-down house, a “half-bodied baby” appears, “talking with a lower voice like a telephone.” Approaching a tree that is more than a thousand feet high, the Drinkard and his wife “noticed that somebody peeped out and was focusing us as if a photographer was focusing somebody.”
The weirdness of The Palm-Wine Drinkard is not just the weirdness of translating Yoruba folktales in a naïve and literal way. It is the greater weirdness that comes from the effort to haul the culture itself into the world of modern Nigeria, with its bombs, telephones, and cameras. The strain of this effort on the language of the book is a big part of its peculiar hold on the reader. Tutuola’s other books are vital and creative, but as Tutuola became a more practiced and confident writer, the books became smoother and less compelling.
In H.P. Lovecraft and other writers of traditional weird tales, the uncanny, eldritch, and horrible generally breaks into the everyday existence of the characters. In Tutuola, there is no everyday existence, and nothing can be counted on. The effect on the reader is unsettling. The Drinkard is a juju-man and shape-shifter, and his wife is a kind of prophet or psychic. Together they transgress forbidden boundaries, journeying to the Unreturnable-Heaven (and returning) and arriving at last at Deads’ Town where the living are unwelcome and the dead walk backwards.
The Drinkard’s behavior is not always defensible. At the Red-town where people and trees are as red as blood, he kills the red-bird and red-fish to which the townspeople have been making human sacrifices. The Red-people turn themselves into fire, burn down their village, and recreate themselves in a new village, where they appear in their natural colors. Despite his wife’s warning, he hires “Give and Take” to till the ground and collect firewood, only to have “Give and Take” steal everyone’s crops.
But when all the farmers or my neighbours saw what “Give and Take” had done, they grew annoyed with me, because they could not plant other crops throughout that year again and had nothing for themselves and their children to eat at all…
Under the circumstances, “annoyed” is a very mild reaction. But things get worse for the villagers. Learning that they intend to raise an army and drive him out, the Drinkard calls on “Give and Take” for help, and in his excessive way “Give and Take” kills everyone except for the Drinkard and his wife.
When he meets his long-lost tapster at last, the Drinkard summarizes the story we have almost finished reading, adding that he has been on his journey for ten years and that “I should be most grateful if he would follow me back to my town.”
The tapster leaves without a word, returns with twenty kegs of palm wine, and tells his own story, which is strangely affecting. For the first time, we feel that the Drinkard’s quest is motivated by more than a love of palm wine, and that there is a real bond between the Drinkard and his tapster. The whole book, at least on one level, is a psychic struggle against the acceptance of death.
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 and was living with deads and he said that he could not say what happened to him before he died in my town. But when he said so, I told him that he fell down from a palm-tree on a Sunday evening when he was tapping palm-wine and we buried him at the foot of the very palm-tree on which he fell.
Then he said that if that should be the case, he over-drank on that day.
After that, he said that he came back to my house on the very night that he fell and died at the farm and looked at everyone of us, but we did not see him, and he was talking to us, but we did not answer, then he went away.
In 2008, the fiftieth anniversary of Chinua Achebe’s first book Things Fall Apart was widely noted, and Achebe himself was celebrated with tributes from his fellow writers.
Six years earlier, the fiftieth anniversary of The Palm-Wine Drinkard appears to have passed with much less fanfare. Yet The Palm-Wine Drinkard shows remarkable staying power. It lives, and like a blob of sourdough starter, it gives life to others, inspiring powerful out-of-the-mainstream works like Mindblast by Dambudzo Marechera and Wizard of the Crow by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.
Tutuola’s influence may be easiest to see in the work of Ben Okri, who transplanted the essence of his grisly tales from the villages near Abeokuta to the teeming capital of Lagos.
The protagonist of Okri’s story “Worlds That Flourish” gradually loses everything: his wife, his job, his possessions, and (temporarily) his freedom. He sets out on an aimless journey, only to crash his car into an anthill. “Something settled inside me and I extricated myself from the front seat effortlessly.” As he walks into the forest, thorns cut him but he doesn’t bleed. Soon he finds himself in a version of what we can recognize as the Dead’s Town of Tutuola.
I came to a river. When I swam across I noticed it was flowing in a direction opposite to how it seemed. As I came out on the other bank the water dried instantly on me. I went on through the undergrowth till I came to a village. At the entrance there were two palm trees growing upside down….
I went out of the place I was staying and walked around in bewilderment. Some of the people of the village had their feet facing backwards. I was amazed that they could walk. Some people came out of tree-trunks. Some had wings, but they couldn’t fly.
Like Okri’s masterpiece The Famished Road, “Worlds That Flourish” is a haunting and powerful story. Without the work of Amos Tutuola, it might not have been possible.