Amos Tutuola Tutuola, Amos (Vol. 5) - Essay

Tutuola, Amos (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tutuola, Amos 1920–

Tutuola is a Nigerian novelist of international reputation. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

That conflict between tribal beliefs and modern technology, between intuitive faith in the past and rational optimism engendered by prospects for the future, is found in all of the four books written by Amos Tutuola, the first Nigerian novelist to be celebrated abroad. It is one of the ironies of literature that Tutuola is probably the best-known West African fiction writer in Europe and the United States (with the possible exception today of Chinua Achebe), yet Nigerians think little of him. His work has sold well on both continents, and his original and translated works have been the literary sensation of Paris. The reason for his French success may be laid to his style: it is an amalgam of African rhythms and structure with pidgin-English locutions. But just as Nigerians generally frown on the Négritude movement, so do they look on Tutuola's work as an artificial product and a dead end.

Tutuola is more a mythologist than a novelist. All his work is cast in the guise of fiction, but his heroes and heroines are more dream-figures than people of flesh and blood. (p. 69)

The journey motif, or the end to innocence, seems at the core of all Tutuola's work. What seems especially important is the change of his heroes' attitude to their journey. In My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and The Palm-Wine Drinkard the heroes return to earth, but they yearn for the mysterious forces of Deads Town and the world of spirits. In anticipation of their return to these worlds they revel in the eternal fears of the forest. In Simbi and The Brave African Huntress the heroines are content to have returned home from their journey. Home is dull, it lacks the throbbing passion of the forest, but it is secure. Indeed, the theme of Tutuola's third book [The Brave African Huntress] is Simbi's foolish desire to venture into "Poverty" and "Punishment." The brave African huntress is driven at least as much by a positive social goal—destruction of the ugly Pygmies—as by a psychological one. Tutuola seems to have progressed from a need to explore evil and darkness, a need compounded by fear of punishment for possessing that compulsion, to a more rational social approach to the conquest and elimination of evil. Even the styles of the books reflect the change of attitude. The bouncing, tossing sentences of The Palm-Wine Drinkard almost disappear from The Brave African Huntress, which has a stately, more conventional sentence structure.

Tutuola has had little influence on Nigerian writers principally because he has relied on a personal mythology and because many Nigerians feel he has been playing the court jester to the European literary kingmakers. (pp. 71-2)

Nigerians regard him as a primitive showing no desire to move from his "primitive habitat." Yet it is likely that in time he will be seen as a real talent, not merely as a phenomenon that introduced the exotic barbarities of an African jungle to a living-room world. Even today he is not without influence abroad: as has already been affirmed, his easeful, vital rhythmic style brought the first wave of European and American attention to West African writers. His preference for English over his native language of Yoruba has in itself been significant, and his books, in spite of their mythical primacy, reflect the ambivalence of an African rooted in the tribal past yet caught up in a modern power struggle. (p. 72)

Martin Tucker, in his Africa in Modern Literature: A Survey of Contemporary Writing in English (copyright © 1967 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Ungar, 1967.

The romances of Amos Tutuola of Abeokuta in western Nigeria have put criticism on its mettle. These strange works, strange alike in their merits and their shortcomings, have taken criticism aback both in the West and in Nigeria, producing a kind of misinformed, surprised delight in the West and (usually) shocked anger and bewilderment in Nigeria. (p. viii)

Most reviewers of Tutuola's books have taken for granted that they are meant to be novels, and this misconception has made for a good deal of critical clumsiness in judgment and some unfairness. If we suppose that the novel proper is a piece of prose fiction that has realistic characters, that deals with man in social relations, usually in a more or less contemporary setting, then surely the Tutuola works are something else again and are not fairly judged as novels.

Gerald Moore notices this mistake in placing Tutuola's fiction and reorients us by saying [in Seven African Writers (1962)] that Tutuola's "affinities are with Bunyan, Dante and Blake rather than with the Western novel." He calls Tutuola a "visionary" and his books "prose epics rather than novels." But though the names of Bunyan, Dante, and Blake usefully highlight the mythopoeic, non-realistic quality of Tutuola's works, only Bunyan is a fiction writer, and Moore does not pursue the very significant parallels between Bunyan and Tutuola beyond saying that neither had much formal education and both "seize upon the images of popular imagination and use them for their own purposes." The term "visionary" is somewhat vague for literary analysis, and "prose epic" is easily confused with Fielding's "comic epic in prose."

A really accurate genre-name for Tutuola's works would be "naive romances"; "naive" to distinguish them from the more sophisticated romances of William Morris or perhaps Hawthorne. The romance genre has been brilliantly distinguished and analyzed by Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism. Frye's placing of the "romance mode of fiction" by the degree of the "hero's power of action" seems exactly pertinent to Tutuola's ghost novels. (pp. 43-4)

[To] be really impressed with the pristine Africanness of Tutuola's novels one must hear something of his folklore marvels: the magical juju powers, especially the transformations. No more than the traditional Yoruba tale teller is Tutuola cribbed and confined in his literary imagination by such considerations as the dicta of logic, the literary canons of plausibility, or the scientific truths of vertebrate anatomy and physics. We can readily imagine that Tutuola's magical marvels are so many affronts to the positivistic and progressive creed of educated West Africans. (p. 71)

[The] first thing about [Tutuola's] work to strike the reader—and it strikes hard—is his language. It is probably altogether unique in the history of our literature. Vigorous and magnificently assured, it is wildly "incorrect," a kind of grand literary defiance of all the English-teaching schoolmarms of the world. (p. 96)

One quality not mentioned by the critics but noticeable to any reader who immerses himself in Tutuola's work and certainly worth mentioning is the stability, the self-consistency, the inevitableness of the language. The quality is not easy to describe, but we might say that when we have read a number of Tutuola's works, we catch ourselves reading conventional English as though it were Tutuolese, very much as when we return from abroad we read English signs as though they were in the foreign language we have recently been living with. Perhaps this is just a way of saying that Tutuola's English is not, like the clumsy freshman themes, merely ineptitude, but a real language with power…. [It] is not nearly as important to place Tutuola's English in the proper social and usage level as it is to recognize its power and grace. Gerald Moore quite correctly calls Tutuola "one of the two supreme stylists among living African prose writers" (the other is the French-speaking novelist Camara Laye). (pp. 98-9)

Tutuola's innocent manhandling of our language gives results that are extremely interesting for language study; [it suggests] the malleability of the language, the possibilities in the language for creative expansion and development, for freshness, and for the assimilation of alien ideas. (p. 103)

In Tutuola's fiction the imaginatively conceived monsters, the fanciful transformations, and other marvels of oral literature are somehow intellectually refreshing, like brainstorming sessions, utopian thinking, and the wild absurdities of risqué jokes. It would seem that our minds are in danger of getting petty and stuffy if we feed too regularly on commonplace reality. (p. 117)

The appeal of [Tutuola's] monsters and marvels is not escapist—that is, psychologically harmful. Tutuola's dream world is every bit as difficult for human intelligence and courage as our real world. The difficulties are often different in kind from those in the real world and so are many of the means of opposing the difficulties, but the human qualities are much the same. And, in a sense, modern science and technology—and their own ingenuity—will one day provide the Nigerians with marvels almost as incredible as those in Tutuola's novels. (p. 118)

Although Tutuola is devoted to the mythical mode of thought, his works are full of graphic touches, clear and lively descriptions showing striking imaginative power, that should make the most inveterate partisans of realism lend momentary belief to his magical world. (p. 119)

Tutuola is a master in the evocation of the simple, uncomplicated emotion of fear. If in some romances terror is transmuted to delicious thrill, in Tutuola's romances it is terror pure—of course, a vicarious literary version of it—much like the intense fear of nightmares. It is the fear of trapped, helpless humanity in the presence of, or in the grip of, bestiality and malignancy. (p. 121)

Tutuola's humor is one of his most ingratiating qualities, both the humor he draws from his traditional sources and that due to his own creativity…. [Humor] is one of Tutuola's fortes and one likely to help him gain popularity…. Sometimes it is wild fancy that charms (a traditional Yoruba quality)…. Much of Tutuola's humor is, of course, humor of hyperbole, which is also a traditional quality…. But perhaps Tutuola's best humor is humor of situation. (pp. 123-25)

But Tutuola's most important literary virtue is what we must call, for lack of a better term, his humanity—his compassionate view of human beings and his dramatizing and offering for his readers' admiration some of the saving traits of humanity: courage, resolution, persistence, ingenuity, resourcefulness, tolerance, kindness, and forbearance. His main characters, untrammeled by the usual human modes of moral bondage, are free from such idolatries as the devotion to slogans and fanatical ideals, to a domineering god or gods, to social standards, to war, to tribal traditions, to class mores, to sexual demands. They exhibit, after their own fashion, not a few of the cardinal virtues ascribed to the heroes and heroines of Pilgrim's Progress or The Faerie Queene—works in which, it might be added, monstrous elements exist in great abundance. (pp. 126-27)

It might be objected that [the] simple, uncomplicated virtues of Tutuola's characters are more admirable and pertinent in Tutuola's mythical world of physical and magical conflict with demons and ghosts than they are in our real world with its painfully complex moral conditions and its conflicts on so many different planes and in so many different relations. But surely simple virtues may have complicated applications, and just as surely in our day we are continually in danger of sophisticating our virtues into outright vices.

It might also be objected that a paralyzing fear in Tutuola's characters makes the moral atmosphere of Tutuola's mythical world unwholesome. It is true that fear is almost constantly in the minds of Tutuola's heroes and heroines and that this fear inspires in them some very rough combat tactics. On the other hand, this fear does not debase or brutalize the characters, or make them mean, suspicious, and cruel. Toward human beings, Tutuolan heroes and heroines are almost always generous, open, and kindly. Toward demons and hostile ghosts, they are at least open and aboveboard in their hostility.

One of the most striking peculiarities of Tutuola's protagonists is that they are wonderfully free from rancor and the desire for revenge…. In spite of the superficial paganism of Tutuola's romances, there are clear reflections of his Christian beliefs and his personal gentleness.

What then is the significance of Tutuola's work? He has made available to the world the human values of the Yoruba folk tales, in the way the folk tale collectors could never do. He is in the true Yoruba tradition of the professional storytellers, the akpalo kpatita, but he performs in every place in the world where there are readers. This fairly catholic reader believes Tutuola's work will endure for the vigor and interest of his language (never mind the errors and hardly ever mend them!), the force and economy and dramatic effect of his storytelling, his fertile imagination, his graphic descriptions, his wild humor, the compelling power of his nightmare flights, tortures, horrors, ogres, and transformations, and the great humanity of his gentle Christian soul, unembarrassed by the African past, Western technology, or indeed anything else. Surely one day Amos Tutuola will be recognized as West Africa's first classic in world literature. (pp. 127-28)

Harold R. Collins, in his Amos Tutuola (copyright 1969 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, A Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1969.

Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard stands out in its exuberant fantasy as sui generis, a light that never was on sea or land. This romance presents itself as a piece of spontaneous and primitive surrealism, the product of a dream-like imagination nourished by the marvels of traditional folklore and quite naively at ease before the supernatural. Tutuola's attitude is undisciplined by a European sense of reality, yet he seems at times ironically conscious of things European and of the contrast between Europe and Africa. The European may wonder whether these tales have been perhaps conceived in a more or less deliberate effort to escape the drab realities of an uncongenial colonialism or its subsequent dictatorships. In … Tutuola's dream world…, the Drinkard is fantastic and carefree. (pp. ix-xi)

Newton P. Stallknecht, "Foreword" to The Emergence of African Fiction, by Charles R. Larson, revised edition (copyright © 1972 by Charles R. Larson), Indiana University Press, 1972, pp. ix-xi.

Amos Tutuola became the first "novelist" from tropical Africa to gain extensive exposure among Western literary audiences. Tutuola was not, however, the first novelist from Africa to be published by a European house. (p. 3)

These … early African novelists [Thomas Mofolo, E. Casely-Hayford, and R. E. Obeng] shared one common bond: a certain reverence and awe for Christianity, which had led them along the pathway to Western education in the first place. Mofolo's novels were published by the church mission from which he had received his education. Tutuola, however, was strikingly different from these earlier novelists in that he broke away from Christianity.

Moreover, his use of the English language was notably original. Purists were shocked by Tutuola's irreverent use of the English language, and … the novel as a genre took on a slightly different shape because of Tutuola's imaginative use of Yoruba folk materials. (p. 4)

It was undoubtedly the language itself which first struck the non-African reader of Tutuola's work. In a certain sense, Tutuola has been fighting a battle ever since then with his fellow Africans, who have been embarrassed by what they have regarded as Tutuola's "irregular" use of English. And the Drinkard misled a number of Western literary critics into believing that Tutuola's language would be the language future Anglophone African writers would employ in their writing. Dylan Thomas, in a now famous review of The Palm-Wine Drinkard, referred to Tutuola's language as "young English by a West African …". He was not alone. Anthony West, reviewing the American edition of the Drinkard, commented to much the same effect: "One catches a glimpse of the very beginning of literature, that moment when writing at last seizes and pins down the myths and legends of an analphabetic culture." West further added, The Palm-Wine Drinkard must be valued for its own freakish sake, and as an unrepeatable happy hit."

Yet, Tutuola has repeated his "hit" [several] times since the publication of the Drinkard, publishing … novels and … short stories in essentially the same Tutuolan style. And the critics—who if they are a little less awed now than they were in the early 1950's—have continued to contradict one another in their attempts to make his works fit into some pigeonhole of Western literature…. Lee Rogow referred to the work as a "fantastic primitive … written in English, but … an English with inflections and phrasings which make it seem like a new-born language…." Rogow, who appears to be amazed that Africans can write, adds, "The interest lies in the primitive play of language," a statement which in retrospect appears to be completely erroneous. For, if anything, the interest in Tutuola should be in his original use of mythology and folklore, that is, in what he has carried over from the oral tradition into a non-African literary genre known as the novel. (pp. 5-6)

More recently, Tutuola has begun to gain the recognition he deserves including a respect among his fellow Africans, who no longer seem to be quite as embarrassed about his presence as they were in the early 1950's. He is still, however, at the center of a continuous debate about his true stature in African literature, a debate which has still not decided exactly what it is that Tutuola has been writing for twenty years, to what genre his works belong. Tutuola is only an archetype in this instance, only one of a number of pioneer African writers who have frequently been misunderstood by non-African critics in their passion for place and order. Again and again, reading Western criticism of African writers one has the impression that the critic has noticed that something is different in African literature; yet this "differentness" is something the critic all too frequently has failed to put his finger on….

In a generally fine study called Amos Tutuola, Harold R. Collins struggles with the problem of categorization, yet never quite comes to the crux of the issue: the African writer's penchant for "bending" the novel form. (p. 7)

[Any] number of contemporary Western novelists would not fit in Collins' definition [of "the novel proper"] at all (Kafka, Nathanael West, Robbe-Grillet, among others.) … Collins is attempting to categorize Tutuola as an eighteenth or nineteenth century novelist, is trying to force him into a literary tradition dead both in the West and in Africa. (pp. 7-8)

The problem with Tutuola, as [Gerald] Moore notes [in Seven African Writers], is indeed the problem of the African writer in general today. The latter has long been caught in the curious dilemma of on the one hand being praised for the wrong reasons, and on the other hand tormented and attacked—again, usually for the wrong reasons. Moore also, it seems to me, has said the last word on the future of Tutuola's "curious form." No, Tutuola's novels are not the typical form of African fiction, (nor has his language been imitated by later writers) and as twenty years have shown, the African novel has not fallen into the Tutuolan pattern. Moore concludes: "Tutuola's books are far more like a fascinating cul-de-sac than the beginning of anything directly useful to other writers. The cul-de-sac is full of wonders, but is nevertheless a dead end." (pp. 8-9)

Amos Tutuola's universe is almost totally different from that of the Onitsha pamphleteers [African writers specializing in brief, topical, racy, pulp fiction]. While theirs is a world of urbanization and neo-realism, Tutuola's is one of jungle and bush—fantasy, supernaturalism, and surrealism. Whereas the Onitsha writers as a group regularly break almost every grammatical rule in the English language, Tutuola's private idiom is almost uniquely his own—sometimes heard in West African English but rarely duplicated by any other African writers…. It is easy to conclude that Tutuola's novels would be impossible to translate into other languages, yet Tutuola's works have been successfully translated into French, Italian, German, and many other languages…. Tutuola in the eyes of many students of African writing remains a "pure" example of contemporary African writing—the African writer par excellence—the only original African talent, almost totally uninfluenced by the West. No doubt these admirers of his work have come to this conclusion because of his clear relation to the oral tradition, myth, and archetype.

The oral tradition is an integral part of every work by Amos Tutuola, and it is exactly this reliance on the traditional tale which is anathema to many of Tutuola's readers, for he is not the kind of writer one is likely to have mixed opinions about. One either likes him or one does not…. Tutuola is first and foremost a story-teller—the major similarity he shares with his Onitsha contemporaries, for both are a link between traditional and modern African literature. In Tutuola's case, however, the story is not formula fiction but a highly skilled weaving of material from Yoruba culture—filtered through Tutuola's never-flagging imagination and reshaped in a narrative form often more closely related to the medieval quest or voyage narrative, Gulliver's Travels, Pilgrim's Progress, or, more recently, Nathanael West's The Dream World of Balso Snell, Céline's Journey to the End of the Night, or Kafka's The Castle. As with these later works, it is the psychological implications of Tutuola's world that many readers find so enthralling, his personal groping toward an understanding of man's relationship to the external world and the spirit world—the ontological gap. (pp. 93-4)

In Tutuola, West African "experimentation" in prose fiction reaches its zenith, for the oral tradition which he uses is more specifically a private mythology where daring tricks and innovations in time, space, and description—no doubt at times unintentionally—attain a level which makes them almost pure examples of surrealism. This surrealism is indigenous or even spontaneous—not based on Tutuola's knowledge of the French surrealist movement. However, Tutuola's remarks about the brief amount of time he spends writing a novel suggest something akin to André Breton's theory of automatic writing: "… an attempt … to express, either verbally, in writing or in any other manner, the true functioning of thought. The dictation of thought, in the absence of all control by the reason, excluding any aesthetic or moral preoccupation." Except for the last comment about the "moral preoccupation," this definition characterizes Tutuola's writing quite patly.

Outwardly, like parts of Achebe's Things Fall Apart, Tutuola's Palm-Wine Drinkard is fragmented and shaped by many short and often apparently unrelated tales and incidents. Like Ekwensi's Jagua Nana, Tutuola takes his main character through a series of picaresque-like incidents and events. Thematically, there is the outer quest of the Drinkard in search of his lost palm-wine Tapster; inwardly this is paralleled by the voyage toward an understanding of the ontological gap—the relationship of man to his surrounding, his environment, the universe in which he lives. It is this essence of the voyage or inner journey of the Drinkard which makes it tempting to relate Tutuola's narrative to the symbolist and surrealistic writing of the early part of this century, and a case could be made for Tutuola's writing as an almost ideal marriage of the symbolist archetype of the dream, the subconscious, the super-ego. It must be acknowledged, too, that the non-African reader is often at a disadvantage in understanding many of the subtle nuances, private referents, and ethnic myths in Tutuola's writing. But also the reactions of his fellow Nigerians—including Yorubas—indicate that even being a Yoruba might not automatically lead to a full understanding of Tutuola's private world, in spite of the fact that a Yoruba student once told me that he had heard many of the tales and separate events in The Palm-Wine Drinkard as a child. Like all good storytellers, Tutuola makes up many of the incidents or substories in his novels, especially when he cannot find something suitable from his reserve of Yoruba folklore. (pp. 95-6)

It is in his use of time that Tutuola differs so widely from the Western writers with whom he has often been compared and even from some of his African contemporaries. In The Palm-Wine Drinkard, the reader is always conscious of time, because Tutuola constantly makes references to hours, days, weeks and months, even years; still there is the impression that many of the events that the Drinkard encounters are beyond the control of the normal dictates of time. (p. 102)

It may be easier to understand Tutuola's presentation of time by considering his references to temporal factors and their relationship to a more traditional value system. Such an interpretation gives us "evil time" and "good time" and in both categories time may be speeded up or slowed down. (p. 103)

It is easy to argue that in many literary works which are outside the bounds of realism—that in all tales and stories, and especially in folklore and mythology—time operates in no logical manner. Tutuola's world is not that simple, however, as his occasional references to time in his own life clearly indicate. In the five-page autobiographical account appended to The Palm-Wine Drinkard, Tutuola describes a youthful experience, by informing the reader:

I was trekking this distance of 23 3/4 miles…. If I left home at 6 o'clock in the morning, I would reach the village at about 8 o'clock in the same morning or when my people were just preparing to go to farm, and this was a great surprise to them, because they did not believe that I trekked the distance but joined a lorry. (p. 128)

Twenty-three and three-fourths miles in two hours through African bush would indeed make Tutuola one of the fastest runners in the world! When asked during an interview … how long it took him to write The Palm-Wine Drinkard, Tutuola replied "three days," later stating that most of his works take no more than two or three weeks. If this is true, one wonders why Tutuola has published only six works during his eighteen-year literary career.

The implication is certainly that Tutuola views time in some other way than we do in the West, as related to some definite system involving good (accomplishment) and evil (hindrance or stagnation); and, by extension, that time in an African sense has little to do with actual blocks of time as measured in a Western sense but rather with human values and human achievements. Certainly this is true of a number of other African novels far removed from the folkloristic domain. (pp. 105-06)

As a corollary, space and its treatment in The Palm-Wine Drinkard is also something frequently quite removed from the Western concept as shown in much Western fiction. Tutuola makes constant references to vast distances (to miles and miles and miles) that his hero and other characters are capable of covering in very limited periods of time in spite of the fact that in many cases there are no roads or pathways…. The Drinkard's advance [in one incident] is much like K's attempt to reach the castle in Kafka's novel, The Castle; time and space frequently repel one another. (pp. 106-07)

Also like Kafka, Tutuola's merging of time and space frequently leads to surrealistic passages, as the physical aspects of the environment divide, alter, and coalesce into new forms. (p. 107)

It should also be noted that the Tutuolan world is replete with humor—often in the form of puns and curious anachronisms. There is a tendency, also, toward the didactic at the end of many of the incidents in the narrative and at many of the transitions from story to story. This didactic tendency, as we have … noted with other African writers, is in part a carry-over from traditional literary materials—in Tutuola's case the Yoruba oral tradition.

Storytelling is clearly at the heart of Tutuola's art, and Tutuola himself has said that even as a child he was admired by his playmates as a teller of tales. If this storytelling borders on the dreamlike, the surreal, the fantastic and the archetypal, we have only to note that Tutuola's tales are rooted in an oral tradition which is still very much alive in Yoruba society today—and the African reader often responds to these tales in a manner different from the non-African. In spite of the reshaping he often gives to his tales, Tutuola is for the African reader clearly a man whose work is grounded in the real world in which the African lives. When reading his work I am constantly reminded of the many essays I corrected when teaching English in Nigeria. Time and again, students related what to me appeared fantastic accounts of spirits and wild animals they had supposedly encountered in the bush. Tutuola's writing does just about the same thing. If Tutuola's imagination is frequently a bridge between the internal and the external world (the ontological gap), between the real and the surreal, between the realistic and the supernatural, we must at least point out in conclusion that passages of Tutuola's novels are rooted in a reality comparable to that of the more realistic works of his African contemporaries…. Yet how can we be certain that [any apparently realistic] passage may not be fantasy, and … may not represent reality to a mind that could create the writings of an Amos Tutuola? (pp. 111-12)

Charles R. Larson, in his The Emergence of African Fiction, revised edition (copyright © 1972 by Charles R. Larson), Indiana University Press, 1972.