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Lit Oblivion

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 ayahuascathe South American hallucinogenic jungle brew used by shamans and sought after by drug touristsand 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.”

Poet Dylan Thomas’ 1952 review; read more here.
The Guardian
Poet Dylan Thomas’ 1952 review; read more here.

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 algorithma 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.

The Palm Wine Drinkard

(Includes Tutuola’s second novel, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts)
By Amos Tutuola
Paperback, $17
Grove Press
V.22 No.48 | 11/28/2013
Eric Buss, ready for action
Photo by Al Tuaris

Arts Feature

More Than Hocus Pocus

Inventive performance tinkers with comedy and magic for all ages

“Imaginator” Eric Buss builds bubble-wrap bikes and wows audiences with his zany brand of magic.
View in Alibi calendar calendar

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V.22 No.7 | 2/14/2013
Sir Richard Bishop

Show Up!

Siring Superlative Sound

An electronic exchange with Sir Richard Bishop

We e-chatted with founding Sun City Girls member and guitar virtuoso Sir Richard Bishop in preparation for his V-Day gig with Om and Jeremy Barnes at Sister.
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V.21 No.47 | 11/22/2012
Rob Zabrecky—magician, actor, musician and auctioneer
August Bradley

Performance Preview

Illusion Noir

Stage Magician of the Year talks beauty and mentalism

Former Possum Dixon frontman has spent the last decade as a magician. His old-school methods have brought him much acclaim.

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V.20 No.41 | 10/13/2011

Spotlight

3 ... 2 ... 1 ... Hyperland

Cosmic synth pop act embarks upon its maiden voyage

Hyperland wants to take you on an intergalactic pleasure cruise. The Alibi was alerted to the synth pop duo's celestial plans via a colorful in-flight manual delivered to our music desk. The band releases its six-song EP on Tuesday, Oct. 18, but Burqueños can experience “Tomorrow, Today” at the band's live debut on Saturday.

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news

The Daily Word in freed hikers, geniuses and suicide by rollercoaster

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Is Troy Davis's scheduled execution America's worst miscarriages of justice?

Masked gunmen dump 35 dead bodies in the middle of a busy Boca Del Rio street.

Gary Johnson gets a spot in tomorrow's presidential debate.

Federal prosecutors call online poker site a global Ponzi scheme.

Republican leaders sent a letter to the Federal Reserve Chairman asking him to “resist further extraordinary intervention in the U.S. economy.”

A mother abducted her eight children in New York.

Personnel board votes to lay-off 27 state workers.

New questions in the deadly Reno air show crash.

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Facebook changed again last night.

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Game of Thrones cupcakes!

Gordon Ramsay gets another TV show.

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R.I.P. Tom Wilson, creator of Ziggy.

Fox is considering creating a 24-hour Simpsons channel.

Mike Tyson broke Steve-O's nose at the Charlie Sheen roast.

There have been some pretty terrible Star Wars video games, but was this one the worst?

This one is for fans of The Wire only.

Happy Birthday Cheryl Hines!!!

photo

Alibi Flickr Photo of the Day

Ice

Posted to Alibi's Flickr photo pool by our pal richarzx.

Winter Hoodoo


V.19 No.46 | 11/18/2010
Stacey Suarez
PHOTO COURTESY OF DANNY COLE

Profile

Illusion, Manipulation and Sleight of Hand

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Stacey Suarez never set out to be a magician’s assistant. It just kind of happened that way.

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Found

Found on Santa Fe Craigslist: slightly used magical spell supplies

This week in Santa Fe Craigslist shopping, the “barter” section yields pay dirt. ... Or rather, magical luck dirt.

I have a small box of spell supplies, still quite useful to one who would use them. These items have been opened and partially used. They are commonly used by practitioners of urban folk magic in casting spells for various purposes.

I'm willing to swap these with someone who'd be interested. Trade items might include other old/used spell supplies, used books (I especially like spellbooks and history books), unwanted gift certificates or whatever else you think might be worthwhile.

Items include:

Indio Money Drawing Wash

Lucky Mojo Love Me Sachet Powder

Anna Riva St. Jude Incense

Anna Riva Banishing Incense

Custom Follow Me Boy Sachet Powder

Hem Vetivert Incense

Morning Star Pine Incense

Augustine's Spiritual Goods Fast Luck Incense

F. Sanchez Millionaire Oil

Indio I Can You Can't Oil

Artico Tropical Rain Oil

Some packages are almost untouched while others might be as much as 2/3rds used, but these all have enough product for one or more uses in them. Some items, admittedly, are things I didn't like (such as the Morningstar incense) others were bought for goals I'm no longer pursuing.

My intent was to trade for the whole lot, but if you are interested in swapping for just one of the items I'm willing to consider it. If that happens, I will update the listing to reflect what products are still available.

V.19 No.31 | 8/5/2010

Ortiz y Pino

Sleight of Mouth

When professional magicians make coins, cards or pigeons disappear, we call it “sleight of hand.”

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news

The Daily Word 8.02.10: Afghanistan, Lohan and Batman all end with “an.”

Ahmadinejad wants to debate Obama live on the Crazy Channel.

The Dutch pulled out of Afghanistan.

Lindsay Lohan is out of jail, but in rehab. Possibly this rehab center?

“I wear my sunglasses at…” Huh? Different Corey Hart.

Cuddly albino raccoon free to good home.

MIT students assisted in the Wikileaks leak.

A Batman #1 found in a yard-sale dresser will sell for more than $40,000. The next Batman cartoon will be available on Instant Watching in October.

Escaped Arizona killers are on the loose.

Magic bracelets make your bike go faster.

A Romanian woman was tortured by Commies. With photo.

A man was killed by the Rail Runner.

BP may seal the well today.

Westsiders' water is dark pee yellow.

Shark week at the aquarium.

The RNC is running out of dough.

Man robs Wendy's, then calls back to complain.

Senator wants to repeal the 14th amendment.

Los Alamos is launching its Smart Grid project for solar power development.

It’s Edward Furlong’s birthday. He played a young John Conner in Terminator 2. Here’s a song from his CD.

Sports

The Boston Celtics: Green Machine Smash

The Big Three: Kevin Garnett (5), Paul Pierce (34) and Ray Allen (20)
The Big Three: Kevin Garnett (5), Paul Pierce (34) and Ray Allen (20)

The Boston Celtics, a team merely two years removed from winning a title, were counted out this postseason. The Celts were seen as aging: Their coach was maybe making his move to retirement; their star players were either considered too old to make any more serious contributions (Kevin Garnett), or a bad fit for this team (Ray Allen), or just the echo of something that used to be great but now would have to fill the veteran role for a new squad (Paul Pierce).

Their second-round opponent was the Cleveland Cavaliersthey of the best record in the NBA this season, they of the MVP LeBron James. Cleveland was the most serious contender for the crown.

The Cavs-Celtics series was many things, but a coronation of King James it was not. The Celtics, miraculously peaking at exactly the right time, took out LeBron and the Cavs and turned their sights to the previously-undefeated-in-these-playoffs Orlando Magic. The Magic went to the NBA Finals last year without their star point guard Jameer Nelson playing at a high level, as he'd just come back from injury. They're equipped with the Defensive Player of the Year, Dwight Howard. The Magic have homecourt advantage in the series, thanks to a superior record in the regular season.

Yet, somehow, again, the Celtics found a way to win.

Garnett, Allen and Pierce were joined in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals by Rajon Rondo, who is in the midst of completing a serious bid for “Player most able to transform from a pellet gun to a fully automatic weapon of death in the playoffs.”

They smashed the Magic in Game 1, building a 20-point lead and looking like the Incredible Hulk showing up to battle the local middle-school bully. The finished up by four, and won 92-88. Game 2 was closer but ultimately got the same result: a Celtics win. The Magic are now heading to Boston to play on Team Green's home floor, down in a best of seven series 2-0.

Not only have the Celtics found a way to win, but they've been doing so (other than the pretty close, but never truly in doubt Game 2 of the ECF) in dominating fashion. It's much akin to the last player off the bench somehow coming into the game and turning in a virtuoso performanceand then doing the same thing for the next five games in a row.

This Celtics team, which no one gave much credit at all to, looks primed to ride its hot hand into the NBA Finals, where they will either meet the upstart Phoenix Suns and their point guard extraordinaire, Steve Nash, or set up a rematch of the public's most beloved series in basketball: the Los Angeles Lakers versus the Boston Celtics. This in no way counts out the Orlando Magic, who have some serious heft on their side. But it should serve at least as a mea culpa from at least one writer who didn't take the Celtics seriously enough.

Like Bruce Banner, this team is playing very, very angry ball right now. And they seem to be getting better.

V.19 No.19 | 5/13/2010
Blake as Sheriff Milton J. Yarberry, murdering magic ghost. Fun for all ages.

Performance Review

Gallows Humor

The Outlaw, Lawman and Ghost Magic Show

Duck inside Nob Hill’s best-kept secret passageway and the first side-room to appear is the Magic and Juggling Shopa zany bazaar where trick kits entice from glass cases, sleight-of-hand artists trade tips, how-to DVDs perch next to packaged rubber vomit and snippets of esoteric conversation may include, “Sorry, we just sold out of Bite Coin.”

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Today's Events

Porter Robinson • electronic at Sunshine Theater

Porter Robinson

Corrales Growers' Market at Corrales Growers' Market

Teacher Open House at Albuquerque Museum of Art and History

More Recommented Events ››
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