“I was a palm-wine drinkard since I was a boy of ten years of age. I had no other work than to drink palm-wine in my life.” So begins Amos Tutuola’s famed The Palm-Wine Drinkard, which came out in 1952 and is widely feted as the first West African novel in English published internationally. The story is a quest narrative that follows its first-person protagonist on his journey into other villages and maybe other worlds, inhabited by creatures living and dead, in pursuit of his deceased palm-wine tapster. Along the way, our hero encounters adventures wonderful, bizarre, horrific and – in case the premise and first lines haven’t made it clear – funny.
The episodic storyline draws on Yoruba folktales and uses English in non-traditional ways, invoking a sustained spoken rhythm. There are many encounters that lead to singing and dancing, which create an impression of entrancing performativity. There is so much in this book. Beyond the fantastic adventures and creatures the hero meets along the way (including the attractive gentleman who it turns out has rented his various limbs from different forest dwellers and is in fact just a skull), it is formally fascinating. In one episode, the narrator relates two trials he was asked to adjudicate, and which he postponed because he was at a loss. If the reader should have any ideas, they should please let him know, since the villagers are still waiting on his judgement.
The book was controversial from its earliest days: at first critically well-received in the anglophone world outside of Africa and Tutuola’s native Nigeria, and sparking less enamored debate amongst readers and intellectuals on the continent. And while non-African reviewers might laud Tutuola’s originality, they also tended to do so in classically patronizing terms. Some critics on the continent, in turn, took issue with the writer’s use of English (positively received by some as a remade African English) as not in fact being reflective of how people really spoke anywhere. In addition, they expressed apprehension that the book, with its widespread visibility – and one of the first if not the first African novel in English to achieve such broad circulation – would allow western readers to confirm existing prejudices about people from Africa being uneducated, lazy, or primitive. There were also accusations of plagiarism in regard to Tutuola’s use of Yoruba folktales. Today, the canonical status of The Palm-Wine Drinkard isn’t really up for debate, and it is considered by many to be a foundational text in postcolonial studies.
The story told by Tutuola somehow never stopped being surprising to me, and defying categories and expectations that I might have brought with, deliberate or inadvertent. It made me laugh and it confused me, it captivated me from the start, and it will surely have me thinking about it for a long time.
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