Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The Palm-wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola

When Amos Tutuola's first novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, appeared in 1952, it aroused exceptional worldwide interest. Drawing on the West African Yoruba oral folktale tradition, Tutuola described the odyssey of a devoted palm-wine drinker through a nightmare of fantastic adventure. Since then, The Palm-Wine Drinkard has been translated into more than 15 languages and has come to be regarded as a masterwork of one of Africa's most influential writers.
Goodreads description

This is a fascinating book, in many ways unlike anything I have ever read and yet also very familiar. The book is narrated by the Drinkard. The first thing that strikes you (within the opening sentences) is that this is a non-judgemental world. The Drinkard describes himself as professional drinker of the alcoholic palm-wine. This behaviour is not punished, instead  his father hires a tapster to tap the 200 kegs of wine a day that the Drinkard consumes. When the tapster falls to his death from a palm tree, the Drinkard goes in search his servant. The rest of the novel follows the Drinkard's travels and his adventures. 

Tutuola said that he wrote to tell of my ancestors and how they lived in their days. They lived with immortal creatures of the forest. But now the forest are gone. I believe the immortal creatures must have moved away.

The novel is packed with amazing immortal creatures - bush spirits and strange people, some living and some dead. The Drinkard encounters a different creature every few pages. Occasionally there is a reference to modern life - eg a tree taking something like photos or a reference to a bomb - but most of the time we are firmly in the land of Tutuola's ancestors. There is not the duality between a dominant European culture and an indigenous one that one expects from magic realism. The indigenous culture is dominant. Despite Tutuola's education at an Anglican school, this is a world in which the Christian God has barely a foothold, a brutal world in which the bush spirits tend to be malicious and even dead babies drive you from the road. The narrator does occasionally talk of God, but then refers to himself as the Father of the gods who could do anything in this world. The Drinkard has juju (magical power) which allows him to shapeshift  to escape or outwit his foes. I was reminded as I read this of the ancient British ballad The Two Magicians, variations of which you find all over Europe.

The writing style is extraordinary. Tutuola was forced to give up his education, despite being a good student. He therefore writes in English but it reads as though he thinks in Yoruba. Nor has the story form been westernized. There is no normal story arc. Over on the Magic Realism Facebook Group we had a discussion about the standardized story structure (three parts etc) and how the "rules" that some people swear by aren't rules at all. Such people would dismiss this book as episodic. They would point out that there is no character development. But this is a story form that is as old as storytelling. A man goes on a journey and meets and defeats various supernatural creatures. Many old legends are just that and so are many early novels. Tutuola's novel is close to the oral tradition that first gave voice to those legends. Tutuola died in 1997 and he wrote this book in 1953. I doubt whether this novel could be written now in quite the same way. 

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