'The Palm-Wine Drinkard' by Amos Tutuola

In The Palm-Wine Drinkard (first published by Faber and Faber in 1952), Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola explores the sobering effects invading colonial powers have on indigenous populations, imposing 'civilization' through violence. Based on traditional Yoruban folktales, the narrative ironically depicts these sobering effects through the hallucinatory imagery of a waking nightmare.

These effects are immediate, as the death of the narrator’s tapster at the beginning of the novel is the very moment when he is unable to find sustenance from the traditions of his native culture, and must journey into an unknown world in search of an identity culled from aspects of both primitive and civilized life.

Tutuola criticizes this shift, the inevitable migration from his own cultural traditions toward modernity, while still retaining an optimism which will allow him to incorporate the remaining fragments of his culture into that new, unknown world.

The narrator’s journey is in essence a nightmare caused by his tapster’s death, sobering him to the reality of his cultural situation. He is, due to circumstances he can’t control, forced to embark on this journey. But using his juju to change into so many animals and objects reflects the narrator’s own (however reluctant) adaptability to these changing conditions.

By using an old cultural mysticism—his juju—he is able to manifest a new physical and spiritual being. In this sense, Tutuola hints at the ephemeral nature of existence and the inevitability of change—the need to adapt to altering circumstances.

Another Nigerian writer, Wole Soyinka, however, doesn’t subscribe to a “clash of cultures” argument. In the introduction to his play, Death and the King’s Horseman, he deems this “a prejudicial label,” that it “presupposes a potential equality in every given situation of the alien culture and the indigenous, on the actual soil of the latter.”

From the alien—here, British—point of view, though, the cultures are not clashing, as they are the ones imposing their own beliefs and social structure on native populations without adopting even a hint of the natives’ culture. But as this merging is forced upon the indigenous population it is, from their point of view, a clash, as it is they who must suffer from it.

There are a few parallels between these two texts. In The Palm-Wine Drinkard, the narrator and his wife sell their death and rent out their fear, and in Death and the King’s Horseman, Elesin states that “[e]ven those we call immortal should fear to die” (13). This may be why Elesin fails in his suicide attempt, despite his culture’s traditional demands that he carry it out.

Whatever Elesin’s true intentions, he is still tempted both by earthly pleasures and by fulfilling his cultural obligations (though choosing the former undermines the latter), which implies the land of the living promotes the acceptance of change while the realm of the dead obliges one’s culture, carries forth the memory of ancestor and tradition.

That The Palm-Wine Drinkard's narrator and his wife sell their death but merely rent their fear signifies, according to Richard K. Prieb, that “violence fails to lead to a permanent state—it is merely temporary and curative” (Prieb, 50). This reflects the irony of existence relying on consciousness to perceive it, that if consciousness exists in all things then all living beings are, in essence, immortal (as energy can neither be created nor destroyed).

Tutuola depicts the fear all living beings feel despite the fact that none of them really die, that ultimately the source of all fear is the ego’s ultimate fear of death, recalling again the ephemeral nature of existence and the inevitability of change—the need to adapt to altering circumstances.

Many allegorical elements emerge from The Palm-Wine Drinkard, such as the “Red-Town” with its “Red-People,” calling to mind the imperial British in their red coats, or even the initial Native American hospitality toward European explorers arriving on West Indian and North American shores. Native American war tactics also emerge in the previous scene of “Unreturnable-Heaven’s Town,” when the narrator and his wife are scalped. Here the narrator and his wife are the invading power, but roles quickly reverse when they become the victims of that brazen venture into another’s territory.

Tutuola draws strange situational parallels regarding the difference between temptation and choice, as seen with “The Complete Gentleman,” who represents the emerging European culture, the enticing nature of modernity luring the narrator’s wife into the forest. And though “The Complete Gentleman” warns her not to follow him, and though she’s aware of the risk, she’s irresistibly drawn to him. This loss of control again occurs while the narrator and his wife journey to “Unreturnable-Heaven’s Town” when, despite their efforts to resist, they are lured as if on a conveyor belt toward the town’s gate.

Here Tutuola’s narrator fulfills a wish to be in the colonizer’s position, as he becomes the invader, concluding his visit (after being victimized for being the invader) by murdering all the town’s natives. Tutuola hints at the fragile nature of all revolutions which come to power by ousting an oppressive regime only to adopt that very role in order to preserve its own power.

Tutuola personifies many abstract concepts, such as “Dance, Sing and Drum,” but the personification of laughter is most intriguing. When Laugh laughs, everyone laughs with it, including the narrator and his wife, almost despite themselves, as if against their will (again paralleling the question of temptation and choice).

The laughter is infectious, and what emerges is the concept of a colonial Stockholm syndrome, wherein the captives (indigenous peoples) begin to identify with their captors (colonial forces)—adopting their customs and attitudes after a process of repressive followed by ideological acculturation.

There also emerge conflicting concepts such as mono- versus polytheism. Though the narrator refers to himself as “Father of all gods…” he frequently remarks on how good God is. It’s also strange how, as “Father of gods…,” he continually forgets then remembers his own powers, alluding to the immediate loss of identity in the chaos of cultural shift while simultaneously realizing he still retains fragments of his older traditions.

Such cognitive dissonance serves to reinforce a seemingly impossible sanity of inverted solipsism. As Steven M. Tobias states:
In The Palm-Wine Drinkard a monstrously distorted, nonsense view of the world becomes the norm. As a result, when an artifact of otherwise privileged English culture appears in the book, it in turn becomes something of an oddity. In this way Tutuola turns the colonial power structure on its ear in an attempt to reclaim the center for himself and his culture. (70-71)
Tutuola uses these textual conflicts, the monotheism of the colonial power versus his own culture’s polytheism and the supposed sanity and enlightenment of British civilization and technology, to somehow reconcile the tension felt by those crushed under the weight of colonialism.

Tutuola’s work seeks to find a bridge between change and conservation, between life and death. Where he aims to critique colonial conquest he also digs deep for a well of optimism, a sustenance he can use to accept the inevitabilities of life—not only welcoming them but venturing out into the unknown in search of them, producing a society capable of enduring itself and so never dying a collective death.

If, in fact, Tutuola is implying his culture and traditions will never die, despite their inevitable erasure during this cultural exchange, perhaps the fear of losing them is unfounded once the culture’s practitioners learn to adapt.

But what’s lost in this cultural exchange between the tradition and modernity? What does a culture relinquish for the sake of civilization? To paraphrase a Freudian ideal, primitive/primal instinct/desire is repressed when confined by civilization. Writers like Amos Tutuola see what lies outside that prison, and are willing to reach their arms out through the bars of the cage to touch it.

Works Cited

Prieb, Richard K. “Literature, Community and Violence: Reading African Literature in the West, Post-9/11.” Research in African Literatures. 36.2 (2005): 46-58.

Soyinka, Wole. Death and the King’s Horseman. London: Methuen, 1975.

Tobias, Steven M. “Amos Tutuola and the Colonial Carnival.” Research in African Literatures. 30.2 (1999): 67-74.

Tutuola, Amos. The Palm-Wine Drinkard. New York: Grove Press, 1993.


steve roggenbuck said...

damn interesting bro
i read some tutuola in poems for the millennium a couple years ago
and was blown away by the language use
like the verb tenses and stuff, i vaguely remember. i always wanted to check out some more

Eric Beeny said...

Thanks, Steve. Yeah, his syntax and logic are very jarring. When 'The Palm-Wine Drinkard' was first published, it was praised by modernists who loved how his use of language is kind of pre-alphabetic, at least in its 'mimicry' of English (imposed by repressive colonial forces and the ideological indoctrination of colonial education), and how the culture depicted is pre-modern yet on the cusp of modernity. If you liked his poems you should definitely check out 'The Palm-Wine Drinkard'. The copy pictured above is actually two novels (the other being 'My Life in the Bush of Ghosts'), and I like them both a lot...