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Death in Tutuola

But the path does not always lead to the desired location. What is important is where one ends up, the road traveled to get there, the series of experiences in which one is actor and witness, and above all, the role played by the unexpected and the unforeseen.
—Achilles Mbembe

It is considered bad form to begin an essay by stating one disagrees with an epigraph that one has chosen. And so, this will be about, and by, indirection, perhaps the only fitting way to discuss Amos Tutuola. What I find compelling about Mbembe’s epigraph is its metaphorical link between history and aesthetics, the real and imagined, captured, most powerfully, in the terms “path” and “actor,” terms to which I might return.

So, we will follow Tutuola’s narrator as he enters Deads’ Town. We will recall, of course, that during his adventures on the path there, the narrator has resisted dying, insisting that death only makes sense when one enters into it alive. We might claim he enters into death as the undead, and certainly the dead react to his presence with the horror the undead elicit. But while horror films have taught us to regard the undead as the formerly dead, we might consider what happens if they are also the still living. There might be horror in the persistence of life in the face of death, the condition of being obscene (off-scene).

For now, we will hold in abeyance, in sight and contained, the relationship between being alive and being undead. But also note what is always crucial in this novel, that to see oneself as being both alive and undead is to encounter the always shifting Tutuolian perspective: one is always seeing oneself otherwise, constantly experiencing one’s own strangeness. That the reader also experiences this being made strange stands as one of Tutuola’s lasting achievements.

Let us be more concrete. On entering the land of the dead, the narrator and his wife meet an unnamed man (the absence of proper names, substituted by descriptions, is one of the peculiar features of Tutuola’s text), who offers them guidance. Following a brief conversation, the narrator and his wife set off to find the dead palm-wine tapster:

[A]s we turned our back to him (dead man) and were going to the house that he showed us, the whole of them that stood on that place grew annoyed at the same time to see us walking forward or with our face, because they were not walking forward there at all, but this we did not know. (96; Grove Press, 1984)

This passage will form the point of departure for what follows. But two other quick passages to add quiddity.

[The tapster] said that [after he died] he spent two years in training and after he had qualified as a full dead man . . . he came to this Deads’ Town. (100)

[The tapster] told us that both white and black deads were living in the Deads’ town, not a single alive was there at all. Because everything that they were doing there was incorrect to alives and everything that all alives were doing was incorrect to deads too. (100)

To credit Tutuola’s critics: they have argued that his text critiques colonialism and slavery (ht texter), and the sentiment that racial harmony takes place only in the land of the dead speaks to both histories in this dystopic text. And here I must emphasize the historically situated nature of this text and Tutuola’s experiences in World War II. For Kenyan readers, historical coincidence adds a richer framework: published in 1952, The Palm-Wine Drinkard uncannily captures the experience of the emergency. (I should note here that historical coincidence, to my mind, is always a fun fact, less grounds for an argument.)

In Deads’ Town, the fully qualified dead walk backwards and are insulted when Tutuola’s characters turn their backs to walk forward. (This, my dear future students would be a terrible topic sentence, as it is descriptive rather than analytical.) Two aspects stand out from this account. One, that in Deads’ Town the backwards walking dead always face each other. What death allows is what Fanon, drawing on Hegel, terms recognition. But it is always a representative facing: each dead person is always facing another dead person—there is something logically impossible about the idea that all the dead can face each other at the same time. (Logic is, of course, mostly suspended in Tutuola.) Another way to articulate this claim is that my recognition of you, my facing you, engenders recognition as a precondition for social being, not, as in Hegel and Fanon, an ideal to be achieved. To turn one’s back on another is to break the ever-proliferating sequence of facing, of recognition. (This idea can be spun multiple ways.)

Equally crucial, the fact of recognition is bound to mobility. And it refuses the structure of moving forward, development and atavism, that structures colonial modernity. In Deads’ Town, one is always moving forward by moving backward. What is crucial, for Tutuola, is that one never turns one’s back on one’s interlocutor. One risks tripping over roots (as the narrator does) rather than turn away.

I have recently asked what we owe the dead. And I believe Tutuola offers a remarkable answer when he claims, “everything that all alives were doing was incorrect to deads.” We are, I believe, in the zone of “owing nothing” and thus being perpetually indebted. But this is not, I think, a pessimistic reading, and is also not one that I will pursue right now. The question of the impossible, not merely paradoxical, will occupy what seems to be shaping up as a series of posts on Tutuola.

Finally, I want to end by returning to the term “actor,” which Mbembe rightly identifies as a key concept in Tutuola. In Tutuola’s multiple worlds, one is always being judged on how one acts. In fact, Tutuola’s narrator is always unmasked when he acts incorrectly. But this is not just about proper etiquette. Especially in Deads’s Town, etiquette is wedded to ethics.

To “act properly” requires walking backwards, with one’s face turned always toward another.