The Village Witch Doctor

by Amos Tutuola

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Critical Overview

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Oyekan Owomoyela, writing in 1999, stated that, while "Amos Tutuola is the first African author to get international fame," he is also "undoubtedly one of the most controversial of African writers; indeed, many would assert that he is indisputably, and by far, the most controversial." Bernth Lindfors has pointed out that Tutuola "appears to be the kind of man least likely to win an international reputation as an author." Lindfors goes on to explain that "considering his cultural background, minimal education, and lack of literary sophistication, it is surprising that he began writing at all and even more astonishing that he chose to write in English rather than in Yoruba, his native tongue."

Tutuola, whose life work includes nine novels and two short-story collections, became known for his epic novels loosely based on traditional Yoruba folktales he learned as a child. The most controversial quality of his writing is the nonstandard use of written English, which Western critics found charming and early African critics regarded as disgraceful.

Tutuola's first novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952), gained immediate recognition and generally positive reception in England and the United States. Harold R. Collins notes that, as a result of the publication of Tutuola's first novel, "Anglo-Nigerian literature was on the world scene, for it was immediately successful." Lindfors explains that "the first reviewers greeted Tutuola's unusual tale with wide-eyed enthusiasm, hailing the author as a primitive genius endowed with amazing originality and charming naivete." Lindfors states, "Tutuola's second book, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954), was welcomed with the same mixture of awe, laughter and bewilderment that had greeted his first." Collins claims that, with the publication of this second book, Tutuola "was established as a genuine West African literary bombshell." Collins goes on to depict the international breadth of Tutuola's success: "In England he was a big success; his books got enthusiastic reviews from Dylan Thomas and V. S. Pritchett. In America Grove Press brought out his second romance, and he achieved such fame as to be mentioned in Vogue. French, German, Italian, and Yugoslav translations attested to considerable European interest."

However, upon publication of his third novel, Simbi and the Satyr of the Dark Jungle (1955), Western critics began to cool to Tutuola. As Owomoyela pointed out, "Within the space of a few years. . .some of his early admirers were reversing themselves, proclaiming his diminishing literary powers or expressing irritation with the very qualities and affectations they had earlier applauded." Lindfors adds, "By the time Tutuola's fourth and fifth books. . .appeared. . .his European and American readers were tired of his fantasies and fractured English. They expressed impatience with his inability to develop new themes and techniques and deplored his crippling limitations as a writer." Collins sums up this decline in Western reception of Tutuola's work, stating that "it must be admitted that the Western critics' admiration for Tutuola's work was pretty much a flash in the pan. After My Life in the Bush of Ghosts these critics are either silent or patronizingly severe or damningly faint in their praise."

Far from Western critics, the African literati immediately took offense at Tutuola's international recognition. They were both concerned with the image of Africa and Africans that his work promulgated in the West and suspicious of Western motives in praising Tutuola as a primitive and exotic curiosity which was in keeping with a patronizing colonialist view of Africa. Collins noted:

Many educated Nigerians were simply horrified by the books. They deplored his "crudities," his lack of inhibitions, and the folk tale basis of his romances. . .; they...

(This entire section contains 1036 words.)

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accused poor, shy, diffident Tutuola of encouraging an unprogressive kind of mythical thinking, of leading the West African literature up a blind alley, and, most important, of giving the supercilious, prejudiced westerners an excuse for continuing to patronize the allegedly superstitious Nigerians! The Nigerians' sense of their vulnerability to western scorn seems to give the greatest force to their objections to Tutuola's work.

However, Owomoyela has pointed out that these early criticisms by Africans were not entirely off the mark:

Dylan Thomas's description of Tutuola's usage as "young English written by a West African" certainly betrayed that subtext, as did V. S. Pritchett's priceless description of Tutuola's voice as "like the beginning of man on earth, man emerging, wounded and growing."

Lindfors similarly sums up the early African critical response to Tutuola, and to the West's adoration of his work:

Indeed, Nigerians disliked Tutuola for the same reasons that Europeans and Americans treasured him: his subject matter was exotic and his grammar atrocious. Educated Africans suspected that the bizarre narratives of this messenger-turned-author appealed to foreigners because they projected an image of Africa as uncouth, primitive and barbaric—an image which happened to coincide with the foreign stereotype of the "Dark Continent." As a consequence, many of Tutuola's countrymen were convinced he was only being patronized by condescending racists and was really unworthy of serious consideration as a creative writer.

However, in the 1960s and 1970s, having achieved national independence and with greater confidence in the Western world's image of Africa, African critics began to warm to Tutuola. Collins has noted that, eventually, "most educated Nigerians are willing to admit that American and English critics may just possibly be right, that Tutuola is in fact a great writer." Lindfors further characterizes this sea change in the response of African critics to Tutuola's stories:

Africans . . . were just beginning to appreciate his mythical imagination and extravagant sense of humor. In the mid-sixties a number of African literary critics wrote reappraisals of his work, probing his special strengths and weaknesses as a creative artist. By this time most sub-Saharan states had achieved political independence so African intellectuals were less self-conscious about their image abroad. Tutuola's books could therefore be evaluated more objectively than before, and many Africans discovered they liked them despite their oddities and obvious flaws.

Lindfors states that, by 1967, with the publication of Ajaiyi and His Inherited Poverty, "Tutuola's reputation was fairly secure both in Africa and abroad." Nonetheless, Collins, writing in 1969, stated that "some Nigerian critics recognized Tutuola's extraordinary talent, but Tutuola has always been 'controversial,' and even now a Westerner's praise for Tutuola will bring a somewhat wary glance from an educated Nigerian."


Essays and Criticism