Aside from the transmogrified strangeness of folk and fairy tales, Amos Tutuola’s 1952 novel The Palm-Wine Drinkard is unlike almost anything else in print. Nebulous comparisons might be made with Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Kafka’s inconclusive parables or Alice in Wonderland, but things behave very differently from even these european gargoyles in Tutuola’s twilight world. I know nothing about the author’s own relationship to Nigerian culture. I would rather meet him as a stranger on the road, enchanting and a little spooky.
What everyone knows is that David Byrne and Brian Eno named their album of bricolage and technological tribalism after Tutuola’s second novel “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts”. Both claimed they had never actually read the book, but it would have been a wholly appropriate influence on Byrne’s ‘stop Making Sense’ lyrics and the circuit- breaking Eno.
Every novel simulates a compact universe. It sets the rules by which that existence operates and, to be successful on its own terms, it must adhere to these tacit laws. As an exception, Thomas Pynchon’s V exploits this by setting two wholly incompatible universes against one another, disrupting the coherence of narrative singularity through which most novels stage their rhetorical arguments. Fantasy stories, on the other hand, often unwittingly flout their own narrative coherence. The Lord of the Rings wants it both ways. We are expected to surrender to the dramatic tension of classic narrative logic, where everything is at stake, where every act is terminal and can never be undone.
The logic of Oedipus Rex is inexorable, the “infernal machine” as Cocteau called it. But when Frodo lies dying in The Lord of the Rings or as the Hobbits are surrounded by malevolence, the emotional charge is defused. A spell is invoked, time is reversed, the slate is wiped clean. This is as incompatible with relentless narrative as Pynchon’s and the fantasy story fails on both counts.
What is so vital about The Palm-Wine Drinkard is Tutuola’s absolute dedication to the fantastic. All laws of the probable are flouted and everything is elastic. Details are hasty and sketched and sentences often end with a blunt “etc”. Things are most often described by the elements that mark them out, make them what they are. For brevity, places and things are named by their description: “The Red-People in the Red Town” or, rather wonderfully, “The Skull as a Complete Gentleman”. The latter is a bare cranium that hires body parts and a nice suit and poses in the market place as a kind of Bryan Ferry in order to lure pretty young women. Events are compressed, time collapses, a decade passes in a sentence. It is, appropriately, a drunken logic.
The plot, such as it is, follows the eldest of eight children. His “work”, as he puts it, is to drink palm-wine. He is an expert and drinks 225 kegs of it a day. He cannot even drink plain water any more. The drinkard is supplied by a tapster who falls fatally from a tree and, because nobody can tap palm-wine as well as this character, the narrator sets off for Deads’ Town to find his posthumous incarnation. On the way, the drinkard finds up a wife, uses all kinds of juju and meets incredible characters such as
“The Invisible-Pawn”, “The Hungry-Creature”and “The Faithful-Mother in the White Tree”. Inside the White Tree is a kind of hotel-cum-hospital with a great ballroom. Scale is immaterial in the bush. It is like a mutilated episode of “In the Night Garden” or an adventure from “The Mighty Boosh”.
The transmission of folk tales follows evolutionary principles. Oral traditions enforce that each retelling of a story will mutate it according to personal and local bias and that the most mnemonic elements will carry from one teller to the next. Fantastic and grotesque details are the organizing DNA rather than psychological depth or moral reckoning. What is the “use” of a fairy tale? The briefest glance through the Brothers Grimm or Calvino’s collection of Italian stories will demonstrate that “happy ever after” is only one strand of many different outcomes. Often stories will take delight in punishing the hero. These seem to be stories told for the sake of telling, for the sake of variation, imagination and invention. Like turn of the evolutionary dice, folk tales are always tweaking the seeds.
Tutuola’s writing seems inherited from an oral background. It shares the same splashy colour, the incredible and the memorable. The Palm-Wine Drinkard is an intensely visual story, a vivid engagement with the imagination. One impossible to convey in any other medium, even anime. The sparseness of descriptive detail works on the reader, like a parasite working on the cortex to produce vivid hallucinations. One imagines Burroughs enjoying Tutola’s magic. All other art forms would be too literal, filling in the spaces that Tutuola is able to exploit. How would cinema, for example, deal with the great and elusive time span of this novel, expanding and contracting as it does?
The Palm-Wine Drinkard is mischievous. That the journey fails in its original purpose is barely given consideration and there is little in the way of moral resolution at the book’s abrupt ending. At one point the narrator must act as a court judge on the hilarious and inspired case of a man who borrows money for a living. He puts great pride into his work. When a debt collector comes to claim a pound back off him, the borrower kills himself rather than fail in his occupation. The collector himself has great pride and kills himself to follow the debt into heaven. A curious bystander, who has witnessed this great contest of wills, also stabs himself in order to see the final outcome. On the cases he presides over, the narrator defers judgement as long as he can, offering an appeal to the reader:
‘so I shall be very much grateful if anyone who reads this story-book can judge one or both cases and send the judgement to me as early as possible, because the whole people in the “mixed town” want me very urgently to come and judge the two cases”.
Towards the end of the story, the narrator is able to avert a great famine through the use of a magic egg. However, the crowds this miraculous act brings to his house are keeping him awake and the grumpy saviour decides he’s done enough good work. In this way, Tutuola wickedly sidesteps good behaviour.
Despite its comparisons with other oral traditions, The Palm-Wine Drinkard is a text, very much a work of printed fiction, rather than transcription. The book makes great use of parenthesis, abbreviation, appeals to the reader and a series of charming and sometimes baffling banner headlines (“WHO WILL TAKE THE MOUSE? ” and “AFRAID OF TOUCHING TERRIBLE CREATURES IN BAG”). These stylistic tics give the novel an even greater personality and (to this reader) more mystery and vitality. The recognized elements of the western novel – narrative resolution, ethical dialectics and psychological mapping – are not considerations of such writing. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, there are no appeals to sentiment or emotional identification. Therefore, no agenda of good and evil. Similarly, literary decorum is absent. Tutuola’s style is both loose and terse and reads as spontaneous. This is both exciting and somewhat disorientating, which befits a picaresque journey through strange, strange territory. Tutuola’s bush land is a place of magic, where all the roads have ended. The Palm- Wine Drinkard is our guide.
Post-script: Having written out of ignorance, I did some research. The Palm-Wine Drinkard was originally composed in 1946 – quickly, almost on a whim – by the semi-itinerant, basically educated Tutuola. It had an interesting, meandering path to publication six years later and was quickly praised (by white readers) and damned (by Nigerian authors and academics). Ironically, both viewpoints seem to stem from the rusty old issue of authenticity; the novel apparently conforming to Western stereotypes of the primitive to Euro-American eyes whilst failing in its faithfulness to Yoruban storytelling traditions to African ears. Oyekan Owomoyela is the most vocally hostile, accusing Tutuola of being intellectually colonized by north-western consumerism, failing to oppose the colonial mindset in any way and failing to demonstrate an authentic Yoruban voice on virtually any count. Ironically, Byrne and Eno faced analogous calls of cultural imperialism on their musical safari. Tutuola’s disinclination to honour his sources also sees him branded as a plagiarist. Other critics were peeved at the rough nature of the author’s writing style, afraid that it would indeed stereotype Africans as intellectual primitives. In recent years, some Nigerians such as the author Ben Okri have reclaimed Tutuola as a heavy influence and some academics, such as David Whittaker have attempted to place his work beyond a strictly post-colonial framework. Actually, it is precisely a lack of authenticity that makes The Palm-Wine Drinkard such a thrilling novel to me. It is folk culture’s erratic evolution – a kind of Chinese whispers – that makes it so resistant to the authenticity that so many seem to want it to represent.