The gods are crazy in Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard
What kind of novel would the Brothers Grimm and William Burroughs conspire to write if they took ayahuasca—the South American hallucinogenic jungle brew used by shamans and sought after by drug tourists—and parachuted into the darkest African bush? Something resembling Nigerian author Amos Tutuola’s phantasmagoric quest fable The Palm-Wine Drinkard.
When the novel hit the Western literary scene in 1952 it must have seemed conjured from oblivion, totally alien and without precedent. At first glance, it reads as the inverse of modernity, drawing on the rich oral tradition of storytelling, dance and performance of Yoruba mythology, which is as complex and ancient as the Greek myths. Yet Tutuola’s novel is also a modern, post-colonial amalgam shot through with themes of conflict and violence, diaspora and captivity. In light of the current events unfolding in Nigeria with the abduction of over 200 schoolgirls by militants capturing headlines around the world, the book seems strikingly contemporary.
You know you’re in for a trip from the opening lines: “I was a palm-wine drinkard since I was a boy of ten years of age. I had no other work more than to drink palm-wine in my life.” When the palm-wine drinkard’s palm-wine tapster falls from a tree and dies, the narrator sets off in search of his ghost on an adventure of Odyssean proportions. “In those days, there were many wild animals and every place was covered by thick bushes and forests; … and as I was traveling from bushes to bushes and from forests to forests and sleeping inside it for many days and months, I was sleeping on the branches of trees, because spirits etc. were just like partners, and to save myself from them.”
When the book landed in England it caught the attention of Dylan Thomas, who proclaimed that it was written in “new English.” While it certainly strikes the English ear as new, it’s also primordial. Told in the pidgin English of Tutuola’s birthplace, his style morphs the rigidity of standard English into a living language rooted in the oral tradition that is the bedrock of Yoruba culture. “When I travelled with him a distance of about twelve miles away to that market, the gentleman left the really road on which we were traveling and branched into an endless forest and I was following him, but as I did not want him to see that I was following him, then I used one of my juju which changed me into a lizard and followed him.”
The plot follows the narrator as he embarks from his village in search of his tapster and is told in interlocking sections with bizarre titles, like “ON OUR WAY TO THE UNRETURNABLE-HEAVENS TOWN” and “NONE OF THE DEADS TOO YOUNG TO ASSAULT. DEAD BABIES ON THE ROAD-MARCH TO THE DEADS’ TOWN.”
The living skull “monster” embodies the theme of underlying violence, and the Frankensteinian nature of the creatures in the bush, that runs throughout the novel. He’s just the first of many to come.
Early on in the novel, he meets an old man who asks him to find his daughter and return her to him. She disappeared at the market in the company of “a complete gentleman” who turns out to be nothing more than a skull with borrowed limbs. This is the first creature of the bush we are introduced to. And he sets the stage for the bizarre menagerie of spirits, ghouls and ghosts who populate Tutuola’s novel.
In the section “RETURN THE PARTS OF BODY TO THE OWNERS; OR HIRED PARTS OF THE COMPLETE GENTLEMAN TO BE RETURNED,” we read, “As they were traveling along in this endless forest then the complete gentleman in the market that the lady was following began to return the hired parts of his body to the owners and he was paying them rentage money. When he reached the part where he hired the right foot, he pulled it out and gave it to the owner…” This goes on as the “complete gentleman” returns his hands, arms, ribs and so forth, until he’s reduced to a nefarious skull-person who kidnaps the woman and takes her to his home. Thanks to some juju and magic flying, our hero the palm-wine drinkard vanquishes the lady from the evil skull and his family and returns her to her father. In gratitude, the father offers her up as a bride, and she travels with the narrator for the rest of the novel. The living skull “monster” embodies the theme of underlying violence, and the Frankensteinian nature of the creatures in the bush, that runs throughout the novel. He’s just the first of many to come.
At one point in their journey, the couple comes across yet another creature who is as hodgepodge and sinister as the skull. He “was walking towards his back or backwards, his both eyes were on his knees, his both arms were at his both thighs, these both arms were longer than his feet and could reach the topmost of any tree; and he held a long whip too. He was chasing us as we were going on hastily with that whip, so by that time, we started to run for our life, but he was chasing us to and fro in that bush for two hours; he wanted to flog us with that whip.”
Despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges the palm-wine drinkard and his wife encounter on their voyage, either juju (magic) or a benevolent spirit of the bush always saves them. They escape captivity and brutal torture at the hands of the “unknown creatures” of Unreturnable-Heavens Town, and are taken in by the benevolent Faithful-Mother in the White Tree who gives them shelter and all the food and palm-wine they can drink for a year, before sending them off to finish their odyssey with crazy gods and creatures that would make Hieronymus Bosch cringe accosting them every inch of the way.
And today, 62 years after his novel hit the shelves, Tutuola’s protean vision of violence and recuperation warns us that behind our iPhones and Snapchat photos there’s a swirling world of mystery that defies even the most complex Google search algorithm—a vivid reminder that, thankfully, the gods are crazy.
Ian Wolff is a writer living in Albuquerque. He has two self-published collections of prose available online through the iBooks store, and his prose, essays and a film based on one of his short stories can be found at ianzwolff.com.
(Includes Tutuola’s second novel, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts)
By Amos Tutuola