Tutuola, Amos (Vol. 14)
Tutuola, Amos 1920–
Tutuola is a Nigerian novelist and short story writer best known for his first book, The Palm-Wine Drinkard. This novel, considered his best, is noted for its epic theme, vernacular prose, and use of myth, fairy tale, and the extravagant exaggeration characteristic of the tall story. Although Tutuola is a highly imaginative, original writer, his subsequent works have met with a cool critical reception. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
John V. Murra
In 1952 the United Society for Christian Literature in London received for publication a manuscript from Lagos, Nigeria, whose author was Amos Tutuola, a messenger in a government office. It was not the kind of material they usually handled; still, they were willing to pass it on. Soon afterward Faber and Faber brought out "The Palm-Wine Drinkard" to considerable critical acclaim…. The work received no such welcome from West African readers. Babasola Johnson, in the weekly West Africa, went so far as to say that it "should not have been published at all."
[Like his first, Mr. Tutuola's second book, "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts,"] uses elements and tales of traditional Yoruba folklore; a seven-year-old boy escapes from his village during a slave raid and wanders through the off-limits forest of the Ghosts for twenty-four hair-raising years. His adventures include transformations into a cow that cannot eat grass and into a chief judge in the Ghosts' Assize Court who is a graduate of a Ghost Methodist School; he is sentenced at least twice to be sacrificed and for a while is elevated to godhood and in turn receives sacrifices; he marries two ghost women, one of them a super-lady, who live in Nameless Town….
The images from Western technology which so delighted the literary critics in the "Drinkard" are still here…. There are fewer pleasant experiences; the good life occasionally found by the Drinkard as he searches for his palm-wine tapster is almost absent in the "Bush." Christianity and God with a capital G, unmentioned in the first work, provide us here with a striking example of syncretism,...
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Amos Tutuola's strangely poetic writing was quick to gain recognition in England and America, but in his own country it was at first widely criticised because of its bizarre use of English and because Tutuola was dealing with a past which many people were trying to forget, a past associated with the old gods and the spirits of forest and village, an ancestral past whose traditions for many of the present generation had lost their powers of reassurance while still retaining some powers of fear and threat. Nowadays Tutuola's work is recognised and admired by a whole generation of more sophisticated Nigerian writers, who no longer feel the need to deny their roots, but Tutuola has little in common with these young intellectuals either. His writing does not belong to any mainstream. It is neither contemporary nor traditional. It is, really, quite timeless and quite individual, although Tutuola has been greatly influenced by his Yoruba background. (p. 126)
He is in a sense an epic poet who as a man belongs nowhere, and this isolation is both his tragedy and his artistic strength….
The Yoruba culture is rich in folk tales, stories of gods and spirits, talking animals, magic charms and powers, people who are transformed into gazelles or fish or birds. Tutuola draws deeply upon the folk tales and myths of his own people, using this material in a way that is strictly his own, sometimes taking snatches of Yoruba tales or characters from Yoruba mythology and recreating them in his own fantastic manner, sometimes combining past and present in such creatures as the Television-Handed Ghostess. He is able to use the Yoruba tales in a variety of ways because they are genuinely his, and often he does not seem to be using them consciously at all. They are simply his frame of reference, the terms in which he naturally tends to think. The tone of Tutuola's writing also resembles that of many Yoruba tales, for it is both humorous and poetic, and it fluctuates between a portrayal of beauty and lightness and a portrayal of grotesque ugliness….
[Whatever] his sources, in his best work Tutuola makes something new from his material. He writes very much out of himself, and his writing stands alone, unrelated to any other Nigerian writing in English. There is a tremendous courage about the man, for he has been able to go on alone, remaining true to an inner sight which perceives both the dazzling multicoloured areas of dream and the appalling forests of nightmare.
Tutuola's first book [The Palm-Wine Drinkard] is his masterpiece. It takes the form of an odyssey, a journey into the underworld which the hero undertakes in order to prove himself. It is really a journey of the spirit, in which the hero meets the monster-creations of his own mind, suffers torments, wins victories and finally returns to his own country, able now to rule it because of the wisdom his experiences have given him and because of the power he has gained through the terrors he has overcome. It is, of course, a classic journey, found in the mythologies of all cultures. It has been compared to Orpheus in the underworld, to Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, to Dante, to the journey of Odysseus. (pp. 127-28)
[My Life in the Bush of Ghosts] approaches and in some ways even surpasses The Palm-Wine Drinkard in the grotesque quality of its visions, although the work as a whole is not as powerful as the first. 'Bush', to a West African, means the rain-forest or what Europeans and Americans might call the jungle. 'Ghosts' in this book are not the spirits of dead persons, but rather spirits who have never lived as people but have always inhabited their own spirit world which coexists with ours.
The hero is lost from his home and enters the Bush of Ghosts as a boy of seven. He emerges as a man many years later. [The critic] Gerald Moore sees the story as a kind of rite de passage, an initiation, and undoubtedly this is so. As well, however, the story is a journey into the depths of the subconscious. Tutuola may not have intended it to be this; indeed, if he had intended it, it probably would not have worked out that way, for this type of exploration has to be done out of necessity, not calculation. The book appears to be a painful setting down of the publicly suppressed areas of the mind. In this fictional guise, the forbidden can be looked at, and the horrifying or appalling side of the self can be brought into the open. The 'self' in this sense means all our selves, for although the forest looks (and is) different to every pair of eyes, it is there in varying shapes and forms for us all. Few are brave enough to look at it, and fewer still to record it.
It is a grim world we are shown here. There is an obsession with pain, flogging, humiliation, torture, excreta. The torments of the hero are feared but also masochistically sought. The image of the mother is an interesting and ambiguous one, for the boy keeps thinking of his own mother with warmth and affection, yet he...
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[The Palm-Wine Drinkard] is more commonly admired for its free-running fancy than for anything that could be called its structure, and apart from its archetypal form of the quest, there might appear to be little evidence of patterning…. Indeed, what seems to be a clear instance of the absence of form is the introduction of the tale of the quarrel between earth and heaven into the novel's closing pages. But I suggest that it might be less arbitrary than it appears, and that the episode is given its peculiar prominence as the culmination of a central and repeated image….
I propose to begin my case by referring to Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, particularly to his description of opposed apocalyptic and demonic worlds, imaged characteristically as farm or garden on the one hand, wilderness on the other. (p. 57)
It is clear that these opposed worlds resemble those of the Drinkard. At the start of the tale we learn that he is a kind of farmer, but living complacently in a world of false fertility…. Death suddenly enters this false Paradise when first his generous father, and then his skilled tapster die, the two men on whom he has been dependent; nature too now demands her fee, the farm goes to waste; and the Drinkard's vulnerability is defined in social terms as his fair-weather friends desert him. So he enters the wilderness in which he is to stray, searching for Deads' Town, and his journey is to be characterized by a rhythmic movement between, on the one hand, states of terror and distress, and, on the other periods in temporary Edens...
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The Palm Wine Drinkard burst onto the world literary scene in 1952, and was an immediate and smashing success. This was balanced by Tutuola's cool reception by Nigerian critics, who felt that the quaintness of Tutuola's style was the chief appeal to outsiders, and that he was read with condescension. Most western critics deny that they treat Tutuola condescendingly, and attempt to prove their point by treating Nigerian critics with condescension, mocking their aspirations towards progress and culture.
There is right on both sides. The Palm Wine Drinkard is an excellent book and the style is refreshing and interesting. At the same time, it is also a very limited style, and the Nigerians...
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Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi
[In Feather Woman of the Jungle] Tutuola's raconteur, in accordance with African tradition, is an old man, the typical sage who passes on his experiences and wisdom to the younger generation. He casts a spell on his audience with his palm wine and stories as a "baba alawo" would with his concoctions and incantations. Each story-telling session is preceded by dancing and drinking to help establish a spirit of togetherness. They form part of the ritual. There is the need in the raconteur to be in control, to be in authority, to have power, a need that has driven him to be somewhat repetitive. However, his skill earns him respect and love from his subjects and admiration from the neighboring villages. (p. 20)...
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