Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Palm-Wine Drinkard

The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads' Town

The subtitle provides an accurate glimpse into this strange book, which describes an epic quest with mythic elements drawn from Yoruba folk tales.

The hero's name is "Father of gods who could do anything in this world." One day he sets out "to find out whereabouts was my tapster who had died." Thus begins a surreal journey through an African underworld.

Some of his adventures:

He rescues a beautiful woman from a "complete gentleman" with rented body parts.

After he marries her, the woman gives birth to a fully grown child from her thumb.

He turns himself into a canoe, which his wife paddles across a river.

They sell their "death" and lend out their "fear."

They are captured by a giant who tosses them into a bag.

When they finally arrive at the Deads' Town, the tapster gives them a magical egg.  They return to the land of the living when the hero changes himself into a pebble and throws himself across a river. At home they put an end to a famine.

The journey is so phantasmagoric that the imperfect English becomes a key element. If the language were brushed up, the book would not be the same. Here's a typical passage:

His fingernails were long to about two feet, his head was bigger than his body ten times. He had a large mouth which was full of long teeth, these teeth were about one foot long and as thick as a cow's horns, his body was almost covered with black long hair like a horse's tail hair. He was very dirty.

Critical Analysis

Margaret Laurence notes that the book "has been compared to Orpheus in the underworld, to Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, to Dante, to the journey of Odyseus."

Gerald Moore says that all of the author's "heroes or heroines follow out one variant or another of the cycle of the heroic monomyth, Departure -- Initiation -- Return."

Chinua Achebe (in the first Equiano Memorial Lecture) calls Tutuola "the most moralistic of all Nigerian writers." The Palm-Wine Drinkard describes the consequences of inverting work and play, and though the events are grotesque and surreal, there are always boundaries to a monster's power. Thus:

...anarchy is held at bay and a traveller who who perseveres can progress from one completed task to the domain of another and in the end achieve the creative, moral purpose in the extra-ordinary but by no means arbitrary universe of Tutuola's story.


Margaret Laurence, "A Twofold Forest," in Long Drums and Cannons.

Gerald Moore, "Amos Tutuola: A Modern Visionary," in Seven African Writers.

Chinua Achebe, "Work and Play in Tutola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard," in Okike: An African Journal of New Writing, No. 14.