The Palm-Wine Drinkard

by Amos Tutuola

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Critical Evaluation

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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 have been collected in Africa and elsewhere, tend to describe briefly, using character types. The emphasis is on action and on confrontation, especially between human beings and creatures outside the human sphere.

Tutuola does for the African folktale, in a very different way, what Evangeline Walton does for Welsh mythology: He fleshes it out, offering a vivid description of actions that might have been taken for granted in a recorded tale. He makes use of what Robert P. Armstrong calls “precise hyperbole” and “visual hyperbole.” The narrator’s captivity in Unreturnable Heaven’s Town would no doubt be disposed of in a standard, recorded tale with a few brief sentences. Tutuola spares no verb in describing the horrors that are visited upon him and his wife. The “barbing” of their hair by unsuitable implements like flat stones and broken bottles gains much of its effect from the typical Tutuolan technique of accretion—the repetition and variation of an activity until it overwhelms the reader with a descriptive barrage. It is quite possible that this aspect of Tutuola’s style reflects the oral tradition directly, not in the same way as collected folktales.

As is shown in recorded performances, the oral tradition encourages drama, hyperbole, repetition, and what might be called joy in storytelling. Some of this spirit is evident in The Palm-Wine Drinkard . Some critics see Tutuola as a poet of the past, because he adapts folkloric material rather than pursuing the mythopoetic direction of some...

(This entire section contains 956 words.)

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of his contemporaries, who are searching for a new African identity. Others, apparently unaware of the source of his material, have praised his Kafkaesque originality. The significance of Tutuola’s work lies in combining these two characteristics: creating a narrative fabric in which old motifs and figures are juxtaposed to human beings in a new frame of reference. He begins with certain givens of folk belief: that the dead are not dead in a Western sense of the word but have gone somewhere to “live” with other “deads”; that the areas of forest or savannah lying outside the influence of town or city—called the bush—contain a variety of spirits and powers that may endanger or enrich the human being who ventures into them. To these assumptions, he adds another assumption that is also standard to many bush tales: Bush creatures may be dangerous and hostile but in the end their magic powers are no match for the cunning and determination of a human being.

The situations and figures in Tutuola’s episodes range from those that seem to be peculiar to African folklore, like the Curious Creature who has rented his body parts to come to town and returns them on the way back into the bush, to universally recognizable motifs such as “how Death came into the world.” Tutuola’s narrator is a person of Tutuola’s present, bringing with him the beliefs and thought patterns of the modern world. He is a Christian who may encounter the very enemies of God, but is never persuaded—or expected—to change his beliefs or his ideas. He enters a world in which time seems to change according to the situation, and yet, as one critic points out, he always notes the time in terms of a twenty-four-hour clock. He adapts to his surroundings, but does not yield to them. Because his vigorous, eccentric style and command of local lore newly validate both the form and the substance of an old genre, Tutuola has emerged as a significant figure in African literature.