Amos Tutuola’s early life consisted of living as a servant away from his own family, attempting to advance his schooling, and experiencing distant kindness from his master but cruelty from his master’s cook. After leaving his master, he persisted in his studies and finally found an unsatisfactory job. Some of this determination in the face of life’s vicissitudes appears in his narrators, who seem to undergo the most terrible trials without losing sight of their ultimate goals.
The effect of Tutuola’s unsettled education is apparent in his use of English, which is not his native tongue. His style has been called naïve, but might also be called grotesque, fantastic, magical, or charming. Long run-on sentences, filled with unusual combinations and forms of words, paint pictures alien to the Western imagination yet are strangely compelling and familiar.
The titles of Tutuola’s best-known works—the novels The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954)—are exemplary of one aspect of his style. “Drinkard” is not likely to appear in any dictionary of the English language, but the meaning is clear. The “ghosts” of the second title are not ghosts as that word is understood by the average American or European. Tutuola’s English is eccentric—sometimes a word-for-word translation from Yoruba—but never inaccurate. If the narrator might be envious of a man, he says, “I would jealous him.” If he means 2:00 a.m., he says, “two o’clock in the mid-night.” The combination of flamboyance and uncomplicated innocence conveyed by his style is at first annoying, but eventually captivating, as his story unfolds.
In The Palm-Wine Drinkard, Tutuola’s unusual style is the framework for motifs and figures from the folklore of his native Nigeria, strung together like the episodes in a picaresque novel, and connected by nothing more than the character of the narrator. Despite this literary form, Tutuola’s novelistic writings (as remarked by the noted mythologist Geoffrey Parrinder in his foreword to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts) are truly African. That is, they reflect the tales Tutuola heard from childhood. They are distinguished from many recorded folktales by their descriptive technique. Folktales, as they...
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