I have been promising a post on Tutuola for some time. However, I am still in that peculiar state of exhaustion that follows the completion of a multi-year intellectual project.
So, instead, a kind of promissory note.
Tutuola’s Palm-Wine Drinkard suffers the paradoxical fate of being, at once, deeply historicized and through that process, being dehistoricized. As noted elsewhere, its form and language are mapped onto a developmental logic that denies Africans coevalness. This is so well known it needs no repeating.
To my mind, no other text in the early African canon so vividly renders the affective and ideological ruptures of Afro-modernity. What is striking about Tutuola’s biography, for me, is less his education and the “semi-educated” status of his prose; instead, I begin with his service in World War II. One might attempt a kind of bio-historical reading that notes the representation of bodies and communities in his text: inverted and fragmented, destructive and destroyed, foreign and unrecognizable.
Bodies are turned inside out, values transvalued, life and death cheapened and transcended. The text is full of indeterminate descriptions, “things,” “something”; brims over with similes, a plethora of “like” that, rather than clarifying, diffuse meaning. I am not claiming Tutuola’s text as “postmodern,” which, to my mind, would be irresponsible. Instead, I am struck by how it pursues what might be termed a death drive, a certain compulsion toward a nihilistic non-future.
Take, for instance, the monstrous progeny of the narrator and his wife. Almost as soon as he is born, he becomes a burden, a grotesque load that consumes too much, a gaping maw—and the narrator and his wife expend considerable effort trying to destroy their child, the potential of a future. Note, also, that the recurring images of children are, inevitably, bound to death and destruction, they are the undead, the have-been, and the never-to-be.
At the end of the novel, the narrator returns to a dying home, replenishes it for a while, only to destroy it altogether.
How does this persistent undoing at the level of language (syntax, semantics, tropology) and social formations (family, community, village, ethnicity) express the affective and conceptual deracination of Afro-modernity? Might such a reading, if fleshed out, actually offer us a deeper, richer way to engage with Tutuola’s work?
As I said, notes, not an argument. Though a discussion I’d dearly love to have with those who study African literature.