Review – Tutuola, “The Palm-Wine Drinkard”

Amos Tutuola, “The Palm-Wine Drinkard” (1952) – …or, “what’s a guy gotta do to get a drink around here??” Amos Tutuola recounts the trials and tribulations of a hero looking to get his palm tree tapper — the one guy who get enough for the titular palm-wine drinkard— out of the underworld.

The Nigerian Tutuola mixed elements from the Yoruba storytelling tradition with modern touches to produce this modern-day mythic epic. We encounter all kinds of weird creatures. My favorite is the suitor who turns out to owe all of his body parts to creatures in the forest, who repossess them one by one, except his mouth- how else is he going to keep talking? The hero and his retainers undergo transformations and what we would today call “mission drift.” Most of all, everything is transactional- the hero can’t smash his way out of things, or call on a deity to fix it. There’s always a deal to be made and work to be done, and no one drives a harder bargain than the ever-importuning dead.

I’ve read that when Tutuola published the book, people didn’t know what to think. Tory critics in Britain pretty near openly race-baited it. Other contemporary African writers were embarrassed by it. They wanted to (and did) prove that Africans could produce modern, universalist literature. Tutuola’s work is steeped in the stories, worldview, and language patterns of the Yoruba. His bid for universality isn’t that of an Achebe, but it works. Some of the original students of mythology held to a stupid, racist idea that the myths of each people were mutually incomprehensible, “deep cultural patterns” or whatever acting as a substitute/supplement for the blood magic racists often believe in. Nothing can be further from the truth. The characters and situations are often difficult to relate to across time and space- but the themes aren’t, and that’s why people not born to them can enjoy them. The Yoruba stories remind me a little bit of the Celtic myths- the intertwining of the cyclical and the disruptive (like the Celtic cross, sadly appropriated by fascists), the capricious changes, the demanding dead. But that’s my own provinciality speaking. Both caught real hell off the Brits, but that’s probably incidental… ****

Review – Tutuola, “The Palm-Wine Drinkard”

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