African novels of the 1950s and 1960s depict children as morally ambiguous characters. Perhaps no other author is as ambivalent about the figure of the child as Amos Tutuola. In The Palm-Wine Drinkard, children are invariably monstrous and rapacious. Instead of looking to adults for protection, children resent living adults, viewing them as embodying a present that forecloses the children’s own futures. In fact, the child represents the most vexing figure in this text.
Here’s the background: the unnamed protagonist, who dubs himself “Father of gods who could do anything in this world,” rescues his wife-to-be from a disguised monster, “the complete gentleman” (I have a post on that coming up). Three years after this rescue, and their marriage, his wife “conceives” and “bears” a son:
I noticed that the left hand thumb of my wife was swelling out as if it was a buoy, but it did not pain her. One day, she followed me to the farm in which I was tapping the palm-wine, and to my surprise when the thumb that swelled out touched a palm-tree thorn, the thumb bust out suddenly and there we saw a male child came out of it and at the same time that the child came out from the thumb, he began to talk to us as if he was ten years of age. (31)
In Tutuola’s text, Afro-modernity is always a process of suturing through approximation—simile is his preferred tool. And here, note how the simile fails to clarify. The comparison between a swollen finger and a buoy (note the charming, if awkward, aural play on “boy”) is hyperbolic, even a little silly. I have yet to read an essay on Tutuola’s use of simile (I have done some research, but nothing exhaustive. But it strikes me that his particular use of simile as inexact and approximate implicitly theorizes the role of the hyphen in Afro-modernity, a continually resistant suturing. In Tutuola, Afro-modernity in Tutuola is always incongruent, slightly off, ill-fitting.
But on to reproductive thumbs.
Improper reproductions are not unique in mythology, be it Athena springing from Zeus’s head, or the Kamba springing from a deity’s knee. (It is the Kamba, right?) And if I were inclined to study Yoruba mythology, I might find a home-grown myth that accounts for this particular scene.
What strikes me about this birth is how and where it takes place: the narrator’s wife is “pricked” by a palm-tree thorn while in the palm-tree farm. In this story, the palm-tree represents the ambivalent nodal point around which community is created, the site of appetite and conviviality. As an enabling midwife, the palm-tree thorn births this child and infects it with insatiable appetite. Of course, the title character is also known as the palm-wine drinkard, so the appetite might be a paternal inheritance.
We can be less abstract about this: as soon as the child is born, he begins to destroy his parents’ lives. He eats all their food, destroys their neighbors’ property, and sows dissension. Like the many insidious child-figures we have come to love and despise through horror films (nod to Chuckie), this newborn child, “ZURJJIR,” is parasitic; he demands his parents’ care (he wants to be carried, for instance), while also preying on them, and, in fact, starves them through his excesses.
There is much to be said about this “child.” He is born, in the text’s actual time, after WWII and in the midst of anti-colonial activism. To conceive of such a child as monstrous, devouring, corrupt, and insatiable, filled with terrible power, is, in retrospect, to re-think the birth of nationalism and uhuru, to examine the compromised character of an already suspect Afro-modernity.
As readers of the text know, as soon as the child begins to exhibit this destructive behavior, his parents scheme to abandon him. They succeed eventually by giving his appetite for pleasure free reign. Although this particular child vanishes from view, the figure of the destructive child recurs throughout the text. In the figure of this child, Tutuola diagnoses a recalcitrant kernel at the heart of nationalist/anti-colonial/post-WWII that continues to bedevil us.
The figure of the vanished child continues to haunt Tutuola’s text, and is especially present as the narrator and his wife leave Deads’ Town and encounter babies on the road to the town:
We met about 400 babies on that road who were singing the song of mourning and marching to Deads’ Town at about two o’clock in the mid-night and marching toward the town like soldiers, but these dead babies did not branch into the bush as the adult-deads were doing if they met us, all of them held sticks in their hands. But when we saw that these dead babies did not care to branch for us then we stopped at the side for them to pass peacefully, but instead of that, they started to beat us with the sticks in their hands, then we began to run away inside the bush from these babies, although we did not care about any risk of that bush which might happen to us at night, because these dead babies were the most fearful creatures for us. (102)
For anyone who has ever wondered, apparently the dead do mourn. We encounter, once again, the idea that a-socialized babies might be the “most fearful creatures”: they do not know, for instance, that they should step aside for the “alives.” And they come armed into death, “like soldiers,” following an instinct to mass and destroy, to follow and eliminate without provocation. This comparison with “soldiers” is one of Tutuola’s most explicit references to the heightened militarization of his time, and is obscene in its reference. (Note, again, the use of simile.)
One more example.
When the narrator and his wife “visit” the ironically named Unreturnable Heaven’s Town, the town’s children “whip and stone” them, “spit, make urine and pass excreta” on the narrator and his wife’s heads (62). (This, my future students, is one way to begin creating an argument: trace and analyze a repeated pattern in a text.)
So, why? Why does Tutuola depict the baby/child as destructive, violent, and even perverse? Why does this child/baby symbolize the impossibility of a future? (This question is revisited, brilliantly, by Liyong in “Lexicographicide” and Saro-Wiwa in “Africa Kills Her Sun.”) There is a question here about the relationship between Afro-modernity and what Judith Halberstam terms “generational time.” How does Afro-modernity complicate an idea of generational time?
But I want to avoid, for now, the difficult question of Afro-temporality (Mbembe on this) and approach the, arguably, more prosaic and slightly absurd question: what kind of world do we inhabit that a baby’s first reaction to “adult-alives” would be rage? Those of us who remain haunted by images from the post-election violence have, no doubt, thought about this question over the past many months.
Tutuola’s perverse children are produced at the intersection of geo-political temporalities, as embodiments of an ending war and an ongoing struggle (and the question of whether WWII should be extended to cover the “long” nationalist period in Africa should remain open). They represent a certain recalcitrance embedded at the heart of Afro-modernity (and, here, Beloved comes to mind as an apt comparison). Strikingly, like Beloved, they are full of rage, not simply at individuals, but at the very idea of a history that cannot accommodate them.
Now, this is incredibly rambling and all over the place. I’m trying to think about specific figures that recur in African fiction while also remaining faithful to Tutuola’s textual irruptions. I end, then, on the thought that these textual irruptions find their most vivid embodiments in the fleshly emergence of the baby-child, the kernel at the heart of a foreclosed Afro-modernity.