The Palm-Wine Drinkard

This is the first book toward my commitment to read  a half-dozen books from African authors.


Written in 1946, The Palm-Wine Drinkard is an amazing amalgamation of several types of literature. First, it is a good example of the picaresque: here a young man who is best suited for drinking palm-wine all day long, moves from episode to episode, story to story, challenge to challenge, in the search for his palm-wine tapster who had died in a fall from a tall tree. It seems that our hero, who shortly becomes known as the Father of gods who can do anything in this world, has heard that the dead hang around for awhile so he sets out to find his tapster and resume a life of drinking palm-wine . Along the way there are many challenges and with the help of his juju, our hero meets the challenges, escapes death, finds his dead tapster, and returns home with the magic he needs to feed his village and assure a plentiful supply of palm-wine.

Although I am not well-versed in African folklore, you can see that many if not all of the challenges and events our Father of gods meets on his quest are taken from African folklore.

Seen as a series of interconnected stories, the novel presents some rather strange narratives, easily distinguishable from the usual stories of western literature. You might compare them to the Brothers Grimm but those stories are quite realistic in comparison to Tutuola’s stories.

My favorite involves the hero having to return the daughter who had been abducted by a curious creature in the market. This creature was “a beautiful ‘complete’ gentleman” tall but stout and very nicely dressed. When the hero follows the complete gentleman into the bush, he discovers that the gentlemen has just rented all his complete parts and when they are returned to the rightful owners on the way to the gentleman’s home, all that is left is a skull. But this skull and the other skulls in that village are not good guys and when the hero goes to rescue the daughter, the skulls chase them by rolling on the ground and nipping at their heels. I found the idea of a complete gentlemen removing his hired arms, his hired legs, his hired torso, etc. and even when reduced to only a skull being the enemy vividly imaginative.

This isn’t a large book and it is quite entertaining. But for me its chief interest was in the traditional way an African story was told versus the more familiar European or American stories. Perhaps there is more kinship with Native American stories, stories based on a much closer relationship with what we call Nature.

Tutuola in some ways reminds me of Naguib Mahfouz, not in the more realistic novels but in the tales of ancient, magical times like Arabian Nights and Days.

You should read this one.

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