Notes on Tutuola

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.

One thought on “Notes on Tutuola

  1. I would add a note or two and you will forgive me for lacking your analytical tools. much focus is often directed at tutuolas palmwine drinkard, which I believe was his first published work, but I believe ‘my life in the bush of ghosts’ and ‘the witch herbalist of the remote town’ give a richer glimpse into his mind. he was of my fathers generation albeit a bit older, which really fascinates me since he as is liberated and curious in his inner mind as any young modern writer of science fiction, really creative hollywood fantasy writer, or anime creator. he was not merely a storyteller or fabulist after some tradition, but a very different creature. (I spent hours at the feet of storytellers as a kid, and lost myself completely in these especially when told by a truly gifted one). I assure you that his writing is NOT reflective of how yoruba men of his generation were inclined to think (not even D.O fagunwa whose stories reflect the oral tradition), and it is only amongst my contemporaries that grew up on marvel comics etc. that such freedom of though has become somewhat more common place. even ben okris ‘the famished road’is fairly consistent with these traditions and while enjoyable and skillful in language, was far less creative than tutuolas work which often feels like an acid trip. Furthermore, while his work and language can be enjoyed at face value, it is worth mentioning that some understanding of his (yoruba) language, culture and his social context provide useful insight into his use of language etc. aside any limitations in schooling even though this does not adequately explain his thinking. some formulations like ‘the wild jungle wealthy people’ who danced and dined till they were disrupted by the ‘abominable snowman’ (I haven’t quite figured that one out yet) borrow from yoruba syntax (‘awon olola ilu’ or the elite of the land called the wild jungle, which was in his framing just another town). I also found that he occasionally restrained himself, possibly as a result of social concerns/pressure and a fear of being seen as non christian in a society where the religion was young and associated with modernity, education, etc. and traditional religious beliefs were frowned upon at least publicly. an example is when he encountered his cousin who died as an infant in the bush of ghosts (now fully grown), and the fellow had become the head of the methodist church of the bush of ghosts (they engaged in theological debate, even though deep down I don’t get the feeling he really believed any of it himself), or when he met the all powerful witch herbalist, and upon showering her with praise etc. was met with the rebuked that all power comes from (the christian) god, and then spent 7 years with her doing chores and attending church services. (I should also mention poe, who is the closest approximation (to my mind) that I can find in western writing) in this kind of imagination.

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