I was a palm-wine drinkard since I was a boy of ten years of age.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Amos Tutuola

This is a hard book to describe, let alone review. First published in 1951 and based on Yoruba folktales it was championed by Dylan Thomas but on release criticised as “primitive”, “lazy” and even “barbaric”. African critics were as divided on it as Western ones and reading it I can see why. Today we have concepts such as “magical realism” (a term I dislike) and we’re more used to novels that mix the ordinary and the fantastic. In 1952 it must have seemed like it landed from Mars.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard

The story is fairly simple. The narrator (the drinkard) inherited a large estate on which he spent his days drinking vast quantities of palm wine with his friends. He had a personal palm-wine tapster, a man who goes up the palm trees to harvest their sap from which the wine is made. The tapster is gifted and his palm-wine is the best in the area, but he dies in an accident leaving the drinkard bereft. Ordinary palm-wine just doesn’t taste as good, and with the drop in quality the drinkard finds his fair-weather friends abandoning him.

When I saw that there was no palm-wine for me again, and nobody could tap it for me, then I thought within myself that old people were saying that the whole people who had died in this world, did not go to heaven directly, but they were living in on e place somewhere in this world. So that I said that I would find out where my palm-wine tapster who had died was.

One fine morning I took all my native juju and also my father’s juju with me and I left my father’s hometown to find out whereabouts was my tapster who had died.

This is a book where you have to embrace the language. The rhythms in that quote above are pretty typical, but they’re not the rhythms of British or American English. They’re Yoruban rhythms expressed in English.

The drinkard says that his adventures took place in the past when towns and cities were smaller and separated by thick bush and forest, but the reality is that this is set in no-time. The people use cowries as currency, as did the pre-colonial Yorubans, but at one point the drinkard sells his death for a colonial period “£70: 18: 6d”. The book is current yet timeless, as myths always are.

Some seven months after setting out the drinkard meets an old man who is actually a god and who claims to know where the tapster is. The old man asks the drinkard’s name and the drinkard identifies himself as “Father of gods who could do anything in this world”. Hearing this, the old man (god) sets him (drinkard) a task: to go to a nearby blacksmith and to get the right object which the blacksmith has made for the old man (god).

The drinkard uses his juju to change into a bird and listens to the old man (god) talking with his wife, and so learns what the object is that he needs to ask the blacksmith for. When he returns with it the old man (god) sets another task, to capture Death with a net.

The drinkard goes to Death’s house where he (the drinkard) meets a small rolling drum which he bangs to announce his presence. Death however is angered at being visited by the living and commands the strings of the drum to tighten upon the drinkard, choking him. At this the drinkard uses his juju to command the ropes of the yams in Death’s garden to tighten on Death and the yam-stakes to beat him (Death). More tricks follow, and Death is captured.

The drinkard lets Death out at the house of the old man, who flees not having expected the drinkard to return. That is how Death came to be at large in the world, having been taken from his home and let out by the house of the old man.

You’ll have noticed my use of “old man (god)” and “he (Death)” there. It’s a technique Tutuola often uses and it takes a little getting used to as he’s easily good enough a writer that you’d never be confused without that clarification. It’s a stylistic choice, one that creates an almost ritual feel to the language.

You might think that having changed into a bird and captured death we’d be some way into the book, but in fact all that’s done by page 12 (and the book starts on page 3). Soon after the drinkard comes to another town where again he gives his name as “Father of gods who could do anything in this world”. An old man in that town asks the drinkard’s help to rescue his daughter, who has been kidnapped by a beautiful and expensively dressed “complete” gentleman who she followed from the market (which is why one should never lightly follow a handsome stranger from the market, good advice in any time or place).

The gentleman is in fact just a skull and only looked like a complete gentleman because he had hired clothes and body-parts on his way to the market. He lives in a hole in the ground with a family of skulls and is a dangerous spirit. The drinkard follows him:

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 travelling 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. But after I had travelled with him a distance of about twenty-five miles away in this endless forest, he began to pull out all the parts of his body and return them to the owners, and paid them.

That quote includes possibly my favourite phrase of the book: “the gentleman left the really road on which we were travelling and branched into an endless forest”. Blink and you’d miss the transition from the real (the “really road”) to the fantastical (the “endless forest”), because there never really is a transition and never a point where one starts and the other stops.

This next quote is from page 33 (of 129). By this point the drinkard has paused in his quest and has married and had a son. The son was magically strong and devoured all the food in the village, burning the homes of those who opposed him, so the drinkard burns down his own house with the child inside and then the drinkard and his wife set off again in search of the dead tapster. Unwisely, the wife briefly goes back to the house to retrieve a gold trinket (if Lot’s wife and Eurydice have taught us anything, it’s never turn around and look back):

When we reached there, she picked a stick and began to scratch the ashes with it, and there I saw that the middle of the ashes rose up suddenly and at the same time there appeared a half-bodied baby, he was talking with a lower voice like a telephone.

There’s no sense here of child cruelty; this isn’t remotely intending to be a realistic depiction of a couple slaying their own child. It’s a mythical event: the couple give birth to a child who is a spirit and have to destroy it to escape, but then release another spirit and so the tale continues.

By this point hopefully you’ve got a decent feel for the book’s structure and language. If it seems like this review is just one thing after another that’s intentional because that’s how the book reads. It’s essentially a collection of folk tales here all featuring the same central character, and so the drinkard and his wife encounter “wraith-island” and later “Red-town” which is populaced by red creatures and the “Red-people” and later yet an indefatigable man named “Invisible-Pawn” who is head of all the Bush-creatures and, and, and…

Whatever else it may be, The Palm-Wine Drinkard (or to give it its full title and subtitle: The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads’ Town) is not a simplistic book. It’s not primitive, it’s not lazy and I have no idea what a barbaric book would be but I know this isn’t that either. I actually found it quite a challenging read, partly as it just doesn’t follow any kind of narrative structure I’m remotely used to and partly because I had to adjust myself to its unique language (something which clearly some of those early reviewers weren’t willing to do).

The Palm-Wine Drinkard follows the rules of dreams. It’s a sequence of bizarre events each of which follow their own internal myth-logic but with no wider narrative save that the drinkard sets off to find his dead tapster and eventually returns from his quest after many adventures (I’m not sure one can actually spoil this book, but just in case I’ll avoid saying whether he finds his tapster or not).

If I knew more of Nigeria’s colonial history and pre-independence situation I’d probably have picked up on some then-contemporary parallels. As it is I only recognised that there were some references that I wasn’t really getting. That didn’t matter though as this isn’t something so simple as a parable or allegory. It’s richer than that; it’s Yoruban tradition captured on the page yet kept alive through Tutuola’s prose.

The structure, the kind of tales Tutuola tells, remind me of the Nordic and Greek myths I read as a child. I remember when Thor took refuge one night in a strange five-chambered hall only to discover the next morning that he had rested in a giant’s glove. Later some giants challenged Thor to drain a giant’s drinking horn, which Thor could not, but the giants grew frightened because the horn was really the horn of the sea and Thor was so mighty that he had almost drained the seas dry. Thor, like the drinkard, has an awful lot of fairly weird random adventures.

In the end I’m not quite sure what I make of Drinkard. It’s not the sort of book you’d dip into to relax of an evening and it’s not full of deep insights into mortality or whatever (save that it’s actually quite a good idea to sell your death as then you can’t die, mine’s available at reasonable rates should anyone want it). It’s very much its own thing.

Perhaps its curious originality is why it matters, because just by existing it helps broaden fiction’s possibilities. Without this would we have Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo, or Mabanckou’s Memoirs of a Porcupine (which I started this morning as at the time of writing)? We might, but I suspect Tutuola helped open the door those later writers walked through.

Other reviews

None on the blogosphere that I know of, but as ever I’m happy to be corrected in the comments.

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14 Comments

Filed under African Literature, Fantasy Fiction, Nigerian Literature, Tutuola, Amos

14 responses to “I was a palm-wine drinkard since I was a boy of ten years of age.

  1. I really liked your review. I used to read a lot of African literature once and feel you need to know a lot about the different cultures, religions and mythologies to fully appreciate it. I’m a bit rusty by now, so I have no idea how I’d get along with this. I mostly read from the Francophone regions.
    I read one of Adichie’s short stories in which she used elements if mythology. As you say, you need to get into the rhythm as a lit comes from the oral traditions. I suppose he works with sounds.

  2. this sounds like a book that might be best approached having consumed large quantities of palm wine?

  3. Thanks Caroline. I’m reading Alain Mabanckou’s Memoirs of a Porcupine currently which I’m really enjoying. There’s clearly some rich stuff to discover (hardly surprising from an entire continent of course). I hope also to read Tram 83 fairly soon.

    I think getting into the rhythm (I always have to take two tries to spell that word for some reason) is vital. The same holds true for say Sam Selvon’s extraordinary The Lonely Londoners (there’s a review here; it’s an excellent book) or for that matter Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting.

    The link with the oral tradition does seem to me a real one, consciously channeled. It makes for a more digressive structure than I think most of us are used to, but no less effective for that.

    Booker, it certainly wouldn’t hurt I admit. I think while it’s as serious a work as any other it does help to come to it with a bit of a sense of fun. It would probably make for rather a good animated kid’s show, for all that the book itself isn’t aimed at kids (though they could read it easily enough).

    It is apparently a fairly landmark Nigerian novel. I mentioned Karen Lord and Alain Mabanckou, but another perhaps more obvious literary descendant is Ben Okri (but I’ve not read him which is why I didn’t use him as an example in the piece).

  4. I do believe I have read ‘The Palm Wine Drunkard’ a long time ago, but it did not have a lot of impact for me. Chinua Achebe’s novels are still my African favorites. Also there was one called ‘Mating Birds’ by Lewis Nkosi that I really liked too.

  5. It’s certainly not got the impact that Things Fall Apart have on me. I’ll check out the Nkosi, I don’t know it.

  6. I can remember reading this years ago and your reflection that ‘it doesn’t follow any kind of narrative structure that I’m used to’ reminds me what I felt.
    I think it’s also important in terms of the discussion at the time of what African literature should be – should it be written in a European language, and, if so, should it reflect the structures of local languages? Should it adopt the European tradition of the novel in terms of structure etc.? Tutola is providing his own answers to these questions.
    Critical reaction to it reminds me of a particular judge when James Kelman won the Booker!

  7. Very interesting review. As always, I wonder how it translates into French.

    Sadly, I don’t think I’ve ever read African writers, except from Maghreb.
    You’ll find magical elements in Three Strong Women by Marie NDyaie. (French writer but part of the novel is set in Africa)

  8. I enjoyed your review as well, Max, even though it’s probably not a book for me personally. I wonder if it’s the type of novel that might be best served by the audiobook format. As you say, the rhythm of the language is so important here. In general I’m not a big fan of audiobooks, but there are some works which lend themselves to being spoken aloud: Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, for example. I caught a radio interview with McBride in which she read a passage from the novel and it sounded so natural and approachable – it’s something I’d consider trying as an audiobook instead of the traditional physical format.

  9. Grant, I think that’s absolutely right. Interestingly the Mabanckou I’m currently reading contains a very clear reference to this within the fiction. It’s an influential book and important to that debate, and seems to have helped give African fiction space to find its own voice.

    Nice comparison with the Kelman. I remember that…

    Emma, I’d hope pretty well. The language is simple and clear, it’s the structure which is unusual and the approach and I think those could be captured.

    Magical elements seem more common in African fiction, or at least the African fiction which reaches us, though it’s by no means universal. I think it’s because drawing on the strengths of storytelling traditions takes one fairly quickly into the mythical and allegorical.

    Jacqui, I can see an audiobook might work (and I think I’d have enjoyed the McBride more on audiobook, though my issues with that were more the utter lack of humour than the prose style – I know others though who heard her read and found it approachable and easy, save the subject matter, but bounced fairly hard off reading it on the page).

  10. obooki

    I really enjoyed this; I particularly liked the language, but I am very partial to non-standard English; his ways of expressing himself are often amusing to the English ear. I think it might work better on the page in fact than spoken. Currently I’m reading his next book, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which is about a boy who runs away into the bush when war comes to his town – but the bush is inhabited by ghosts; and he’s turned into a cow etc. I read it very sporadically; I don’t think his books are best served reading them all in one go.

    It should translate quite well into French, since its translator was Raymond Queneau.

  11. Fascinating – now I certainly want to read this book. Coincidentally, I’ve just begun Clarice Lispector’s ‘Near to the Wild Heart’ on your recommendation, and that’s another one of those fragmented reads! I was thinking a bit about your comment about this one being a precursor of magical realism – I’m not entirely sure I’d subscribe to that view. Wouldn’t you say that Borges and Casares got there first?

    (PS. In my view, Ben Okri definitely has a lot more narrative structure than what your review indicates.)

  12. Obooki, My Life with Ghosts sounds very similar, perhaps too much so? Is it worth my giving a go do you think?

    Guatambhatia, you’re right, I may well be wrong on the timing. I actually rather dislike the term magical realism (and don’t think it applies here particularly). My issue with it is that I think it’s often used for works that really are exceptionally well written fantasy, but the fantasy label is seen as derogatory.

    With Ben Okri (and the others I mentioned) I didn’t mean stylistic similarity as you’re absolutely right there’s more structure there (and with Mabanckou and Lord) so much as the freedom to include fantastic elements which aren’t merely thematic. By that I mean magic which works according to a belief system, spirits, an otherworld that operates according to some form of rules and exists as a reality within the fiction rather than simply as allegory.

  13. obooki

    If you’re looking for something different, then no, it wouldn’t be worth reading. I have a few other books of his too, and they all look like much the same sort of thing.

  14. Pingback: yes, I was a happy porcupine back then, | Pechorin's Journal

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