The Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Amos Tutuola

or, to give it its full title, The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his dead palm-wine tapster in the deads’ town, is a very strange novel in almost every aspect. Tutuola wrote it in a few days; it was translated into French by Raymond Queneau (and it’s not hard to see why he might be attracted); it manages to make various references to another book which he only wrote later – all of which I have copied from his Wikipedia page.

The style of the book is strange. Here is a random quote:

But as we looked at our back, we were looking at the large hands with fear, so when the hands gave us a sign to come to him, now my wife and myself betraited ourselves, because when the hands told both of us to come to him, my wife pointed me to the hands and I myself pointed her to the hands too; after that, my wife forced me to go first and I pushed her to go first. As were were doing that, the hands told us again that both of us were wanted inside the tree, so when we thought that we had never seen a tree with hands and talking in our life, or since we have been travelling in the bushes, then we started to run away as before, but to our surprise, when the hands saw that we took to our heels again, they stretched out from the tree without end and then picked both of us off the ground as we were running away.

Tragically, it appears Tutuola never had the chance to learn from arch-pedant and novelistic bore David Foster Wallace that one should learn correct English first just so that one can then unlearn it again in order to right some fine non-standard English, but just wrote fine non-standard English. (Perhaps Foster Wallace is wrong here, and mistook his views for the talentness of the people he was at the time teaching.) As always, I found any non-standard English – any interesting ways of putting things – amusing in themselves (what difference really is there to me, in this respect, between Tutuola and Chaucer – or, indeed, Shakespeare or French?); and for most of this book I had a big grin on my face.

As the random quote above also demonstrates, the content of the book is strange too. Is the book sui generis? (Wikipedia). It reminded me of a few other things certainly: for instance – and I doubt very much that Tutuola have ever come across this book in his life – it reminded me enormously of Mario de Andrade’s Macunaima. It has the same sort of bewildering and nonsensical plot (in both stories, characters are at one point pursued by a skull); and the narrator has about him exactly the same sort of braggadocio, and curious magical powers. Another thing it reminded me of was Jodorowsky’s El Topo.

The plot of the book is this: a man spends his life lying about drinking palm-wine, but then his palm-wine tapster, who produces his palm-wine for him, dies, and he spends the next ten years wandering around the bush, finding himself in stranger and stranger places and situations, searching for the deads’ town where his palm-wine tapster is so that he can bring him back. So yes, basically it’s your typical Dionysus-dying God / Orpheus myth.

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4 thoughts on “The Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Amos Tutuola

  1. A great little book. I remember reading this when I was about 19 and just reciting his sentences over and over and over. It still seems to me nearly incomparable in terms of what it manages to do with English; even the multitude of other examples of non-standard usage seem to lack something Tutuola tapped into (palm wine, perhaps).

  2. I certainly can’t think of a comparable book. I have GV Desani in my shortly to be read pile; perhaps that may be similar. But yes, if you’ve been drinking 225 kegs of palm wine from the age of ten, you’ll probably have a singular outlook on life.

  3. Did you make it all the way through El Topo? Twenty minutes was enough for me.

    I shall look out for Tutuola.

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