Amos Tutuola Tutuola, Amos (Vol. 29) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Amos Tutuola 1920–

Nigerian novelist.

With his first published work, The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952), Tutuola became the first Nigerian writer to achieve international recognition. This adaptation of Yoruban folktales into nonstandard English represents one of the first works of its kind, and Tutuola is credited with founding a uniquely African literary form. Influencing critical reception of The Palm-Wine Drinkard was the early appearance of a laudatory review by Dylan Thomas, and the ensuing critical attention gave Tutuola's work a cultlike status in the Western world. Nigerian critics, however, were skeptical of Tutuola's skill and complained that his work was both ungrammatical and unoriginal, being unduly similar to the work of D. O. Fagunwa, a Yoruban chronicler of tales in the vernacular. Tutuola's next five works, all derived from oral tales and written in English, received comparatively less attention but established him as a consistently skillful storyteller. After his fifth work, Ajaiyi and His Inherited Poverty (1967), Tutuola did not publish until the recent appearance of The Witch-Herbalist of the Remote Town (1982).

Tutuola's works usually concern a naive or morally weak character who is either inspired or forced to embark on a spiritual journey. During this journey, he often encounters danger, confronts spirits from the underworld, and has sudden insights which enable him to live a more pious life. Because of the spiritual themes, allegorical characters, and symbolic plots, Tutuola's works have been called mythologies or epics rather than novels. An early Tutuola critic, Gerald Moore, analyzed Tutuola's use of mythology, comparing it with mythological patterns occurring in literature throughout the world. Other critics have also recognized in Tutuola's literary quests elements similar to those of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and other important quest literature. Since Tutuola was formally educated only through the sixth grade, most critics consider a conscious emulation of world mythology unlikely. Rather, they attribute these similarities to Tutuola's knowledge of Yoruban oral tales, which have universal themes as their basis. It is his reliance on traditional stories which prompted well-educated Nigerians to question Tutuola's originality. However, other respected critics maintain that Tutuola adapts and expands the legendary sources to create original versions.

In The Witch-Herbalist of the Remote Town, Tutuola again follows the mythological pattern of the quest theme. The story's protagonist, in search of a potion to render his wife fertile, meets with children from the spirit world. The protagonist undergoes mental changes which Tutuola depicts through physical transformations and allegorical confrontations between the protagonist and the various aspects of his personality. There is overwhelming agreement that Tutuola has here maintained the philosophic, symbolic, and imaginative qualities of his first works.

(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 14 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Dylan Thomas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Palm-Wine Drinkard] is the brief, thronged, grisly and bewitching story, or series of stories, written in young English by a West African, about the journey of an expert and devoted palm-wine drinkard through a nightmare of indescribable adventures, all simply and carefully described, in the spirit-bristling bush. From the age of ten he drank 225 kegs a day, and wished to do nothing else; he knew what was good for him, it was just what the witch-doctor ordered. But when his tapster fell from a tree and died, and as, naturally, he himself "did not satisfy with water as with palm-wine," he set out to search for the tapster in Deads' Town.

This was the devil—or, rather, the many devils—of a way off, and among those creatures, dubiously alive, whom he encountered,… [was] a "beautiful complete gentleman" who, as he went through the forest, returned the hired parts of his body to their owners, at the same time paying rentage, and soon became a full-bodied gentleman reduced to skull.

Luckily, the drinkard found a fine wife on his travels, and she bore him a child from her thumb; but the child turned out to be abnormal, a pyromaniac, a smasher to death of domestic animals, and a bigger drinkard than its father, who was forced to burn it to ashes. And out of the ashes appeared a half-bodied child, talking with a "lower voice like a telephone." (There are many other convenient features of modern civilised life...

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Arnold Goldman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Ajaiyi and His Inherited Poverty] Amos Tutuola is being like these French songstresses who sing in this land for decades of years but whose English speaking is still being broken as much after all the time passing as when coming off the boat at first. He is writing the inspired Higher School Certificate paper for the satisfying of English Masters, which is to me the better when staying in the culture and not in the spirits, gods etc for too long exclusively. Naturally the spirits, gods etc are talking like the people, that is the joking part, but dear me sometimes they are sounding not like the energies of the myth of them which filters through the speaking English but sounding like the building up of them by schoolchild to a pretend of myth….

Ajaiyi and his 'junior sister' Aina watch their impoverished parents die and set out from their village to seek freedom from their 'inherited poverty'. It is a reverse Rasselas, an unroyal pair leaving an Unhappy Valley. The typical episode puts Ajaiyi in possession of a fortune only to have him lose it through a likable gullibility…. That Ajaiyi gets free of his poverty by a last-minute conversion and the largesse of parishioners is disappointing, but is accomplished in a sufficiently slapdash manner to seem a kind of parody of the native writer belatedly reminding himself to please the missionaries. I hope it's parody.

Arnold Goldman, "Yoruba Daisy" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1967; reprinted by permission of Arnold Goldman), in The Listener, Vol. LXXVIII, No. 2020, December, 1967, p. 792.∗

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

We are reminded [in Ajaiyi and His Inherited Poverty] of Bunyan and of the Harrowing of Hell. Part of the delightfulness of [Tutuola's] work stems from the beauty of a working-class man asserting himself, his own instinctive taste operating on scraps of the colonizers' literature and on old African tales and proverbs, criticizing and blending his sources into a unity. Always the voice is that of a man with little schooling who talks marvellously.

In spite of his gaiety, Tutuola is as serious here as he was in his tale of the town of multi-coloured people who persecuted the mono-coloured in the Bush of Ghosts. His hero, Ajaiyi, has inherited poverty from his crippled parents and it has grown around him like a tortoise shell….

The story ends on an exalted note, with Ajaiyi living in some kind of Christian communism. "It was like that I was entirely free from my inherited poverty at last but in a clean way." The weirdness of the images—the talking lumps of iron which may settle on a man's head, the mother of the witches who may creep into the pupil of his eye—do not detract from the thrust of the story. The repeated phrase—"it was like that"—convinces: the disease of poverty is like that, for this African Piers Plowman.

"It Was Like That," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1968; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3438, January 18, 1968, p. 53.∗

Chinua Achebe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Tutuola] is the most moralistic of all Nigerian writers…. [He] has his two feet firmly planted in the hard soil of an ancient oral and moral tradition.

Of course Tutuola's art conceals—or rather clothes—his purpose, as good art often does. But anybody who asks what the story is about can hardly have read him. And I suspect that many people who talk about Tutuola one way or another have not read him.

The first two sentences in The Palm-Wine Drinkard tell us what the story is about:

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.

The reader may, of course, be so taken with Tutuola's vigorous and unusual prose style or by that felicitous coinage, drinkard, that he misses the social and ethical question being proposed: What happens when a man immerses himself in pleasure to the exclusion of all work; indeed raises pleasure to the status of work and occupation; when he says in effect: Pleasure be thou my work! The Palm-Wine Drinkard is a rich and spectacular exploration of this gross perversion, its expiation through appropriate punishment and the offender's final restoration. (pp. 25-6)

Nothing in all this is particularly original. What is so very impressive is Tutuola's inventiveness in creating new and unexpected circumstances for the unfolding of the theme. For example Tutuola makes the interesting point that those whose personal circumstance removes for them the necessity for work are really unfortunate and deprived and must do something to remedy their lack. This is demonstrated rather dramatically by that mysterious, and in the end quite terrible, personage, the Invisible Pawn, otherwise known as Give and Take, who comes to the Drinkard out of the night and tells how he has always heard the word "poor" without really knowing it and asks for help in order to make its acquaintance. Tutuola is saying something quite unusual here for in the estimation of the world, poverty is a great misfortune and those born into affluence are accounted lucky. But here is Tutuola saying that a man whose circumstance has insulated him from want has a need to go out and actively seek and undergo its punishment for a season in order to make his life meaningful and complete. Simbi, a character in Tutuola's later book has, like the Drinkard, a much too easy childhood and deals with it by going in search of hardship. The Drinkard has too much appetite and too little wisdom to recognize his predicament unaided and is forced by fate into dealing with it. (p. 27)

Even a moderately careful reading of The Palm-Wine Drinkard reveals a number of instances where Tutuola by consistently placing work and play in close sequence appears quite clearly to be making a point.

In the episode of the Three Good Creatures we see how music relieves the Drinkard and his wife of the curse of their half-bodied baby. They have just danced non-stop for five days and find themselves unexpectedly rid of their intolerable burden. But right away they also realize that after the dance the life of struggle must be resumed and its details attended to…. [The] poet/drinkard who has just sung a lofty panegyric to the three personifications of music, and danced for five days without pausing even to eat, now suddenly becomes a practical man again concerned with money and "food etc." He carves a paddle, turns himself into a canoe and his wife into a boatman. At the end of the first day they have garnered seven pounds, five shillings and three pence from ferrying passengers across the river. (One small point here; the Drinkard is a magician and from time to time does exploit his supernatural powers, but he always has to combine this ability with honest-to-God work. So although he can turn himself into a canoe, he still needs to carve a real paddle!)

If this episode were the only instance in the book where Tutuola makes the point of restoring the ascendancy of work after a binge one would probably not be justified in attaching particular significance to it, striking though it certainly is. But we do find Tutuola returning again and again to the same motif. In fact later in the book there is another "special occasion" involving Drum, Dance and Song again. This time the merriment is to celebrate the deliverance of the Red People from an ancient curse and the founding of their new city. Even Drum, Dance and Song surpass themselves on this occasion. Such was the power of their music that "people who had been dead for hundreds of years rose up and came to witness."… The cosmic upheaval unleashed by the three primogenitors of music is only quelled and natural order restored after they have been banished permanently from the world so that only the memory of their visit remains with mankind. Quite clearly the primal force of their presence has proved too strong for the maintenance of the world's work. Immediately after their gigantic display and banishment Tutuola switches abruptly and dramatically to the theme of work to clinch the point…. [It] becomes possible, I believe, to see the proper balance between work and play as a fundamental law of Tutuola's world,...

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Eustace Palmer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In order to establish [Tutuola's] position in African literature and to estimate him properly, it is essential to be clear about the genre in which he wrote. It has been too facilely assumed, particularly in the western world, that he wrote novels. Yet, however flexible we may be in our definition of the novel or in the choice of criteria for its evaluation, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to find a definition or set of criteria which will enable us to describe the works of Tutuola as novels. To attempt to make a serious evaluation of Tutuola as a novelist is to apply to his works a body of assumptions to which they are incapable of rising and to do a grave disservice to his reputation. For Tutuola is not a...

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Bernth Lindfors

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tutuola had written another long narrative entitled "The Wild Hunter in the Bush of the Ghosts" before he wrote The Palm-Wine Drinkard. (p. 46)

The tale itself closely resembles Tutuola's six published narratives but also contains a few notable idiosyncrasies that make it unique. Like the others, it is an episodic adventure story told in the first person by a hero who has been forced to undertake a long hazardous journey in a spirit-haunted wilderness. (p. 47)

Anyone familiar with Tutuola's other works will recognize … a number of features that place "The Wild Hunter in the Bush of the Ghosts" in the same distinctive narrative tradition. First there is the monomythic...

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Abiola Irele

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is a great amount of misunderstanding involved in the reputation that Tutuola has enjoyed outside Nigeria, and especially in Western countries. It was thought that he had created a new form of expression, a new kind of novel, whereas in fact …, he merely took over a form developed out of the folk tradition to a new level of expressiveness by Fagunwa. It was even imagined that the universe of his narratives bore some kind of relationships to that which the surrealists, each in his own way, sought to evoke from the subliminal reaches of the individual consciousness. His limitations with regard to the English language in which he expressed his works were also valorized…. In short, Tutuola has been admired for...

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Edward Blishen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Even Amos Tutuola's earlier books have not given me so strong a sensation [as does The Witch Herbalist of the Remote Town] of being nine or ten again and hearing, for the first time, passages read from Pilgrim's Progress….

The Yoruba equivalent of the Christian morality of Pilgrim's Progress lies in the hero's mental and spiritual equipment: which (and one thinks how science and folklore increasingly appear to echo each other) resembles that of an astronaut. He has first and second minds, the one on the left being less reliable but more imaginative, the one on the right extremely reliable. There's a third partner, "memory", and a fourth, "Supreme Second", which is totally...

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D.A.N. Jones

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anyone who enjoys Nigerian writing in English must salute Amos Tutuola, the man who made the breakthrough in 1952 with The Palm-Wine Drinkard. It is appropriate that the founder of a literature should be a working-class man, an early school-leaver, making poetic use of the idioms of the unlettered. Tutuola was like a seventeenth-century Welshman who had just discovered the sweetness of the English tongue. The Witch-Herbalist of the Remote Town is his first novel for fourteen years: his English, though not as wild as it once was, still has a flavour of the early school-leaver, a newcomer to the language. The very title shows it. No Englishman would lay such stress on the dull word "remote"; but for...

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Charles R. Larson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Nothing he writes will probably ever satisfy Amos Tutuola's readers as much as his first novel, "The Palm-Wine Drinkard." At the time of its publication in 1952, there were so few other novelists from tropical Africa that many readers assumed that Mr. Tutuola's unique style would be representative of future writing from the continent. That belief quickly passed away. Africa has never produced another writer quite like Mr. Tutuola, though his own subsequent works have often read as if they were imitations of "The Palm-Wine Drinkard." Even his English—initially referred to as "basic," "pidgin" or even "primitive"—has become increasingly close to standard.

Yet the outstanding quality of Mr....

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Nancy J. Schmidt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although Tutuola includes numerous proverbs and proverbial references in Witch-Herbalist, as in his other narratives, they are not used to reinforce a consistent moral message. Rather, they are used in a variety of narrative contexts to support different moral values, instead of as chapter headings and reinforcements of Tutuola's major moral messages, as in Ajaiyi and His Inherited Poverty. Good and evil, right and wrong, are not consistently defined in Witch-Herbalist.

Witch-Herbalist, like all of Tutuola's narratives, combines elements of Yoruba oral literature with the realities of the modern world. The contemporary political world is evident from the opening sentences...

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