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”

Review – Levi, “The Periodic Table”

Primo Levi, “The Periodic Table” (translated from the Italian by Raymond Rosenthal) (1975) – What is there to say about Primo Levi? As far as I can tell, he might be the most universally respected of the great twentieth century literary figures. No late-career slump, no shilling for oppressive regimes, no ego spiral, no sexual predation… just a dude saying what he saw, as best he could.

I’m both trying to be more brief with these reviews (especially of fiction) and am about two weeks late with this one- between my birthday and everything, stuff just got pushed. This is a book of short stories about Levi’s life, mostly before and after his time in Auschwitz. Each is themed after one of the elements on the periodic table- Levi was a chemist by vocation. They range a lot. There’s a discussion of the old Italian Jewish community the came from. You see young Primo learning how to climb mountains with a boy who went on to be the first partisan killed from his town. There’s a bunch of amusing chemical industry anecdotes (apparently varnishes turn into gross little livers after a while?). Perhaps most interesting is his meeting with one of his supervisors in Auschwitz years later and trying to figure out how much of his repentance is sincere or relevant. All of it in the straightforward but humane prose of a man who, in the depths of the worst of the century, decided that if he survived, he would remember and recount all of it, as clearly as he could. That one of the few uncompromised figures of twentieth century literature is also one of the clearest and most readable is a miracle. *****

Review – Levi, “The Periodic Table”