Although it is certainly possible to enjoy Amos Tutuola’s novels on their own merits—merits that include economy of language, a strong storytelling voice, a marvelous self-assurance on the part of his narrators (almost always in the first person), fantastic imagination, and virtually nonstop action—it is useful to look at him within the context of Yoruba culture. The Yorubas are a people of western Nigeria who both have embraced Western culture and have remained intensely connected to traditional ways. The Yoruba people make up about 20 percent of the population of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and one of its best educated. Although Christianity is the religion of virtually all Yoruba people, there is a deep undercurrent of animism.
As with Tutuola’s narrators, contemporary Yoruba people see nothing unusual in a world where churches coexist with magical charms (juju) and the deepest and most impassable jungles (the bush) are filled with spirits, both those of the dead and those of nonhuman beings. Yoruba folklore is characterized by a belief in a distant but benevolent supreme deity and the presence on the earth of numerous smaller “gods” and powers, often anthropomorphic. It is still common practice for both adults and children to sit around in the evening and listen to folk stories much like those in Tutuola’s books. In some cases, they do so while drinking palm wine, a mildly alcoholic beverage made from the sap of palm trees.
Inexpensive or “free” primary education in British-style schools, often run by churches, was common when Tutuola was a child, and this exposure, from his tenth year until his late teens, provided Tutuola with the necessary tools—literacy and a knowledge of literary forms (from simplified classics in the schools to books published in Yoruba)—to begin his career as a writer. One thing those schools did not give him, however, was the confidence of one who knows a good story and is not afraid to tell it. It was that self-assurance (so clearly echoed in the gentle strength of all of his variousprotagonists) that led a junior clerk, a man in a lowly position in an extremely class-conscious colonial society, to dare to send his first writings to a publisher.
The Palm-Wine Drinkard
The Palm-Wine Drinkard begins with the narrator telling us a bit about himself. “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.” These first words hardly prepare readers for the mythic dimensions of the character seen later in the book, but the prodigious amounts of palm wine he consumes (225 kegs every twenty-four hours) give us the hint that he is no ordinary human. When his palm-wine tapster falls from a tree and dies, the Drinkard sees that the only thing he can do is seek out his tapster in the land of the Dead. This sets the mythic tone of the book and all the rest of Tutuola’s work. The Drinkard enters the bush, a netherworld inhabited by spirits and strange creatures. His first encounter, with an old man who sets him the Herculean task of capturing Death, reveals to us the Drinkard’s superhuman powers. His other name, he tells us, is “Father of gods who could do everything in this world,” and his success in capturing Death (who then escapes, which is why “we are hearing his name about in the world”) proves that his title is no idle boast. The Drinkard’s next exploit is to rescue his wife-to-be from a skull who has borrowed body parts to masquerade as a “Complete Gentleman.” Thereafter, he and his wife continue on his quest, but not before she becomes pregnant (in her thumb) and gives birth to a miraculous and dangerous half-bodied child who must be destroyed before they can continue on their way. They do eventually reach the town of the Dead, despite the menace of such beasts as a Spirit of Prey with eyes like searchlights and with the help of the Drinkard’s powerful jujus and such beings as the Faithful Mother, whose servants buy the Drinkard’s death and rent his fear.
Novelistic plot development in the conventional sense does not exist in this or Tutuola’s other romances; the various episodes are almost interchangeable. The Drinkard, however, does learn a lesson at the end of the novel. His tapster has now (like a student in a European school or an apprentice blacksmith) “qualified” as a full dead man. He cannot return to the living. Instead, he gives the Drinkard and his resourceful wife, who has developed into something of a Sibyl, a miraculous egg. The Drinkard and his wife return to the land of the living. There he finds a famine and, sending a sacrifice to Heaven, brings rain to the people—an ending that seems to recapitulate the conclusion of a traditional...
(The entire section is 1960 words.)