Friday, August 24, 2018

Amos Tutuola, The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952) and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954)'s the first and second novels by this Nigerian writer in one volume. He was clearly influenced by Daniel Fagunwa (or else they were both influenced by the same things--or both), but he's better-known, no doubt in large part because he wrote in English. Well, a sort of English. Okay, English. That's clearly what it is. But not what we would think of as idiomatic English. I read somewhere that it's as close to the structure of Yoruba as you can get while staying more or less within the bounds of English. It makes these novels a very different reading experience from Forest of a Thousand Daemons; they're thematically very similar, but that one has been translated into somewhat stylized but basically standard English so that, oddly enough, the English-original novels feel more foreign.

Again, we have the feel of folklore, although it's not clear to me how much of this is actually folklore, and how much was just made up by Tutuola in that idiom. The Palm-Wine Drinkard was something of a sensation when first published, probably because most Westerners had never really seen anything like it. It's about a guy who drinks shitloads of palm wine. Maybe that went without saying. When his tapster--the guy who gets it for him--dies, he goes on a quest to find him, getting married and doing other unrelated stuff along the way. In My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, the narrator is separated from his family at the age of seven and runs off into the bush to escape slavers. But--spoiler--there are ghosts there. Neither novel is exactly tightly-structured, but the latter feels even less so than the former. It really is just "first I went here and did this, then I went here and did this, then I went here and did this."

There's some interesting and striking stuff in these books. One thing that I found particularly striking--in both of them--is the way Tutuola doesn't distinguish between living and dead people in the way that one might expect. The two categories overlap and intermingle in a way that I can only assume is indicative of a way of seeing the world that's fundamentally foreign to us dumbass Westerners. Still, I don't know if I exactly loved them. As noted above, there's little in the way of narrative structure, and neither book really builds to anything. Furthermore, even though they're written in an unfamiliar style, there's a certain flat, affectless quality to the prose that, perhaps, doesn't convey the eerieness of the goings on to the extent that it should. I'm aware that that last bit is bound to be extremely subjective.

I'd like to also think a little bit about why I liked it, if I liked it. I feel this is a very difficult subject, AND YET. Because I have this strong tendency to see these novels as a kind of outsider art; I suppose in one sense that's definitionally true--he was approaching the novel form from a completely different perspective with--as near as I can gather--little knowledge of its conventions. But in that case, am I just appreciating his work as a kind of quaint novelty? Am I not reading it deeply? Is there a kind of depth that I'm ignoring or incapable of seeing? VERY UNCLEAR.

I will say this, though: I think Taban Lo Liyong's defense is wildly misguided:

Now, in all that he has done, Amos Tutuola is not sui generis. Is he ungrammatical? Yes. But James Joyce is more ungrammatical than Tutuola. Ezekiel Mphahlele has often said and written that African writers are doing violence to English. Violence? Has Joyce not done more violence to the English Language?

For the record, I don't think that anyone here mentioned is doing any "violence" to English, and if they are, it's in a good way. But COME THE FUCK ON: Joyce and Tutuola are not trying to do remotely the same thing. Joyce's (sometime) ungrammaticality is simply not comparable to Tutuola's. By suggesting the two are, you are willfully making yourself look stupid to make a point. And beyond that, in comparing the two like this, you're setting up a dichotomy where if you're wrong (which you are), then Tutuola has to be called a failure. That doesn't seem remotely accurate or fair to me.

Mind you, I still don't know what to think of Tutuola. As far as Novels I Have Read go, it certainly is (pace Liyong) sui generis, so that's good, but I am not sure I liked them enough to delve further into his extensive oeuvre. We'll see.


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