“The Palm-Wine Drinkard” by Amos Tutuola (1952)

The palm-wine drinkard consumes dozens of kegs of palm-wine each day, until the sudden death of his tapster leaves him bereft of his drink and abandoned by his friends. He soon decides that the only solution is to track down his favoured worker and recover him from the land of the dead. The Palm-Wine Drinkard (and his dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Dead’s Town) by Amos Tutuola is the surreal story of this quest, recounting the challenges and supernatural creatures he encounters along the way.

The first thing a reader is likely to notice about this work is its style and register, which includes lengthy, sometimes winding and repetitive sentences with generally straightforward syntax. It does not feel like a conventional “literary” English style; it feels like a spoken story which has been put on paper but which still shows the strong influence of orality. Tutuola has been praised for his role in creating a specifically African form of English-language literature, which doesn’t care about conforming to colonial aesthetic and linguistic standards, and (although it predates Nigerian independence) its publication is hailed as a landmark moment in postcolonial literature. Personally, I don’t find the style particularly appealing, but neither is it off-putting: it makes for quite easy reading and a faster pace. Although some of the incidents described in the narrative are (or should be) horrific, including mass murder and violence against children, the work maintains a cheerful (almost jaunty) tone throughout. This feature of Tutuola’s style can come across either as darkly humourous or as deeply disturbing, but in either case, it is striking.

We don’t learn very much about the narrator or his (sometimes prophetic) wife. Other than references to “juju”, travelling through the bush, and the use of both cowries and imperial pounds and shillings in currency, there aren’t even many connections to the real world or any specific area of it. The work is apparently based on traditional Yoruba stories (countering a tendency for such knowledge to be lost under the twin pressures of colonialism and proselytising Abrahamic religions), although as Tutuola doesn’t claim to be creating a repository of these, it is difficult to separate traditional aspects from his own potential innovations. Some of these traditional stories may have included advice on different types of juju or plants with supernatural potential, but Tutuola does not quite provide enough detail for readers to understand the systems behind his character’s powers. Nevertheless, the story offers an interesting mode of non-Eurocentric fantasy or magical realism which is very different from anything I’ve read before.

My favourite feature of this book is the vivid descriptions of all manner of monsters: some are developed from ordinary creatures (such as the Red Bird with huge teeth which tries to swallow the narrator); others are more abstract and bizarre (such as the massive creatures which look like pillars). Some of these monsters can be outsmarted, others can be killed (usually through the use of a gun); but in many cases, the narrator has no choice but to flee, often using the magic of his juju to transform himself in an attempt to escape. I also enjoy the surreal combination of this kind of extravagant fantasy with the close attention which the narrator often pays to mundane details: a striking example is seen when he uses magic to turn himself into a canoe, and then explains exactly how much money he made by becoming a river-crossing service.

Even on a casual reading, it is possible to identify a few recurring themes. Some stories are aetiological, especially those which involve personifications – how Death was spread through the world, how a disagreement of Heaven and Land caused a great famine – although these do not make up the bulk of the book. Multiple stories place an emphasis on extreme over-consumption, and its inversion through famine; there is also an emphasis on the dangers of travelling off-road in the bush, and of fire as an important weapon or way to ward off evil. There are powerful supernatural beings throughout, some large and monstrous and others which are smaller or invisible but still need to be respected; but many of these beings have their powers limited or restrained within a certain area that they cannot trespass beyond, which contrasts with the mobility of the protagonists. Appearances are often deceptive, and the book stresses the need to pay attention to small details which might reveal strategies and solutions.

The prose style of The Palm-Wine Drinkard can be challenging at times, and it doesn’t have much emotional depth or detailed characterisation, but I would recommend it for people who are looking to step outside of their comfort zones. This short book is a quick and fun read which offers a type of story that isn’t very common in English-language fiction, and which will appeal to anyone who has a general interest in unusual myths, folktales and oral traditions.

Particularly recommended if you’re interested in: descriptions of fantastic monsters and supernatural creatures; early examples of distinctively African literature in English; Yoruba culture and folktales.

117 pages + 19 pages introduction and authorial autobiography in the 1984 Grove Press paperback edition (RRP $7.95 in 1984, equivalent to around £15.50 in 2020). Content includes descriptions of accidental death, alcohol, arson, dead infants, dismemberment, famine, filicide and child murder, human sacrifice, mass murder, physical abuse, torture (in graphic detail), suicide, and other kinds of violence.

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