I don’t remember where or when I first read about Amos Tutuola’s 1952 novella The Palm-Wine Drinkard, but I have read the majority of the book itself sat in a waiting room in a rammed Canadian government services centre as I try (for the third time) to gain access to government health insurance.
This is the third trip I’ve made here, chasing the free healthcare to which I’m eligible, but on the previous two occasions it took the staff less than an hour to tell me to fuck off. Today I’ve been here for over two, and I don’t see any signs of being done soon. Still, it’s given me the opportunity to read some high modernist Nigerian fiction, listen to some hot jazz and consume one of the worst coffees I’ve ever bought from a hipsterish indie-looking coffee shop. I suppose, given the prevalence of Tim Horton’s here – whose coffee is basically undrinkable and not even strong enough to distract from its atrocious flavour profile with a wild caffeiney kick – it shouldn’t be a surprise that equally-terrible coffee is available elsewhere, but it does make a rather hefty assault of the capitalistic ideal of the market at leveller: if a company has a large market share but a terrible product, then historic customer loyalty should not be strong enough to resist change to a superior product at the same price, especially when said change to a superior product is so fucking feasible. There’s no reason for coffee to be this bad, but there’s at least some justification for an old behemoth to continue with its status quo, compared to the zero justification a rival upstart has to be equally as shit. There is a Tim Horton’s almost next door to the place that just served me the awful coffee, so if slash when I have to return to wrangle with Canadian bureaucracy again I will know to avoid both and get loaded on delicious coffee from the hip part of the city that I (obviously) live in.
Well, I got called to my appointment as I finished typing the above, which was quicker than I’d expected. By the time I’m home the whole adventure will have only taken around four hours! What a fun and funky morning!
I mean, I’ve had worse days. Thankfully, the waiting wasn’t fruitless, so it wasn’t even wasted time. I need that healthcare so I can get the meds I’m reliant on for being [more] psychologically stable lolololol! And it gave me a rare daytime justification to sit in a chair not on public transport and read and listen to music. So, yes, there are worse Monday mornings (I’m typing this on a Monday) to be had. In fact, I’ve had many myself. And talking of someone who has lots of terrible days, the protagonist of The Palm-Wine Drinkard has an absolute nightmare time, sometimes, too.
This was Tutuola’s first book, and despite receiving a lukewarm response in Nigeria, The Palm-Wine Drinkard was fucking lapped up in the literary circles of London and New York, with both T.S. Eliot (an anagram of “toilets”) and the celebrity Welsh alcoholic and womaniser (also occasional poet) Dylan Thomas going wild for it. With these hip recommendations, the book snowballed into success and was the springboard for an impressive and long term literary career for Tutuola, a man who grew up with limited access to education until near-adulthood (if his autobiographical Afterword is honest).
Despite the deliberate “mis-“spelling in the title, The Palm-Wine Drinkard largely eschews the use of non-standard English and it is this decision that perhaps made Tutuola’s Yoruba-folklore inspired magical journey narrative so popular with the international literati, who were – and remain – inherently conservative though in denial about it. There is nothing about the language here that is unrecognisable or “difficult”, even: Tutuola’s complex-simple (or simple-complex) narrative may be rug-pullingly playful and disarming to those of its readers (like me) who are unfamiliar with its folkloric progenitors, but there are no linguistic (and thus imaginative) barriers to comprehension. Lots of long sentences, too.
The narrative tells of a youngish man who loves getting smashed on palm wine, but when the worker who taps the finest palm wine dies (falling drunk from a tree, of course), he decides to head to the world of the dead to try and get him back. As with all narratives of this sort, the journey to the world of the dead is far from straightforward and through it he finds love and immortality (by selling his death), and also at one point meets a skull who rents other people’s skin, muscles and bones so he can sneak into the local town to kidnap people to eat. There are chapters about cities that are plagued by demons, there are armies of malevolent dead babies, there is lying and trickery, there are giants who eat the heroes whole and get burrowed out of, there are magical transformations and there are journeys of phenomenal distance that take no time at all.
Everything is uncertain and changeable except that which is not, which changes.
Tutuola shows a reader the deaths of those who cannot be killed and the continuance of those who are already dead. Without knowing more about Yoruba mythology it’s difficult to know which of the villains and monsters Tutuola describes are straight from his own mind and which are the Nigerian equivalents of leprechauns and banshees, but I don’t think this is important as all are described with the same ferocious and clear imaginative prose. Cultural ignorance is no barrier to Tutuola’s literary delights.
It’s no surprise that The Palm-Wine Drinkard got people excited: it’s modernist but readable, it feels like oral storytelling but is also undeniably literary. It’s knowing and modern and it’s great. It’s a thrilling Odyssey-like journey through real, mythical and mystical dangers and pleasures, and it was a great text to have accompanying me through an otherwise dry, aggressively patient, morning down at ServiceOntario.
Well worth your time.
On November 14th 2018, I launched my first (and so far only) book, Bad Boy Poet, in the basement of Burley Fisher Books, Dalston. Here are some of the songs and poems I performed:
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