The Palm-Wine Drinkard

by Amos Tutuola

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Amos Tutuola was a prolific writer who became one of the best-known African novelists of the twentieth century, his fame eclipsed only by that of his fellow Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe, whose work stands as an interesting contrast to Tutuola’s. Achebe presents the clash of cultures, the West continually encroaching on African traditions, in terms that Western readers can understand. Tutuola excludes and ignores the West, showing the reader a macabre, magical, wholly original culture, in which nothing is what it appears, and there is no safety or certainty.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard was Tutuola’s first novel, allegedly written over the course of a few days when the author was twenty-six years old, and it remains his best-known work. The book was enthusiastically received in England, where T. S. Eliot accepted it for publication by Faber and Faber, and even more so in France, where it was translated by Raymond Queneau. Perhaps the most influential review in the English-speaking world was the one written by Dylan Thomas, which appeared in the Observer on July 6, 1952. Thomas called the writing “terse and direct, strong, wry, flat and savory” and described the narrative as “brief, thronged, grisly and bewitching.”

The reception of the novel in North America, and in Tutuola’s native Nigeria, was less enthusiastic. The New York Times called it “primitive,” an adjective which, along with “barbarous,” featured all too frequently in negative reviews. To contemporary readers, much of this criticism has a condescending tone. The implication is that European Modernists like Joyce and Eliot can use language experimentally, but the same experiments can only be solecisms when they come from a young African writer with little formal education. The Yoruba folk tales from which Tutuola drew his inspiration were compared with “old-fashioned nursery literature,” as Anthony West put it in The New Yorker, rather than with European epics or stories.

In the opening sentence, the narrator, who is never named, describes himself as “a palm-wine drinkard since I was a boy of ten years of age.” Given the prodigious quantities of palm-wine he drinks throughout the novel (225 kegs a day when his tapster is still with him), it would be quite reasonable to use the more familiar and censorious term “drunkard.” However, despite the magical events of the narrative, the narrator does not write or act like a drunkard. He continually displays great presence of mind, along with a keen awareness of his surroundings. His senses seem to be heightened rather than dulled by alcohol. Drunkenness is a vice, but one must drink to live. What appears at first glance to be a spelling idiosyncrasy, therefore, makes an important point about the nature of the story and the man who is telling it.

Although the allusions are all to African folk tales rather than European literature, the reader who is familiar with the latter is likely to be reminded of Voltaire’s Candide, another brief work which proceeds at such a ferocious pace that it seems much longer than it is, given so many incidents are crammed onto each page. Like Candide, The Palm-Wine Drinkard is full of cruelty and grotesqueness. It demonstrates the unfair, arbitrary nature of life through a long sequence of horrors. Unlike Candide, however, it appears to have no moral, not even the very limited one of cultivating one’s own garden in spite of the wickedness of the world. The book ends abruptly, with the slave who carried the people’s sacrifice to Heaven facing their ingratitude when he is caught in the rain. The slave’s miraculous achievement, like the achievements of the narrator, has excited only suspicion and hostility.

The final sentence of the novel, however, tells the reader that the deadly famine is over. What happens to the narrator and his wife is not revealed. Their quest seems to have been entirely pointless, since they only averted disaster for a short while with the magic egg the tapster gave them. Their community, however, survives, which means that they survive. Several times in the story, the narrator is left in a devastated or deserted town and is forced to move on because he cannot live in such circumstances. Individual life ends abruptly and unjustly, but collective life continues, so that even the dead form a cohesive and orderly community of their own.

Tutuola does not share Voltaire’s contempt for popular wisdom. The great European novels tend to be seen as products of individual genius, but The Palm-Wine Drinkard comes from the more democratic tradition of collective folk tales. It is scarcely surprising that many Western critics initially failed to understand the type of text they were reading or that those who felt the force of Tutuola’s colorful imagery most strongly were poets such as Eliot and Thomas, who, like Tutuola, stretched the boundaries of language and imagination.

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