Friday, 7 October 2011

the palm wine drunkard [amos tutuola]

I had already come across Tutuola without realising it. In this book he refers to another book, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which he had, at the time of writing this book, not yet written. This is indicative of the way in which Tutuola's writing seems to take place in the fifth dimension, beyond the petty confines of time. (Which has implications for the idea of narrative.) In 1995, during a peripatetic phase of my career, I was given the job of looking after a group of Nigerian actors who were in London at the behest of the Royal Court, to perform a version of Tutuola's later novel. When I arrived to collect the company to drive them back to Heathrow, it turned out that almost half of them had absconded, vanished into another bush of ghosts. Which might suggest I had failed in my duties; at the same time I learnt more about being African from those weeks with the Nigerians than from any other source.

Tutuola's first novel is like a spotlight being shined on a way of using the language we never knew existed. Straightaway we are propelled into a land where Fear is both an emotion and a character, alongside Heaven and God. You will meet them along the way. The narrator's ostensible journey is to find his tapster who's vanished, gone to the land of the Deads. As a result his life, which up until that point had consisted of drinking palm wine and having parties, is rudely interrupted. The key point, perhaps, is that this is his life: just as in our world we might go to the office or till the fields, his life is to get up and drink. However, the disappearance of his tapster means he has to go on the road to find him.

This notion of a search, the original picaresque narrative, is repeatedly encountered in African literature. On the road you will see things that appear to be beyond belief. The story is bounded only by the imagination of the narrator, and Tutuola has no shortage of imagination. At the same time, as a Western reader, the lack of all those narrative elements we have come to expect in a novel make for a sometimes painstaking read. As though we are not yet ready to enter a realm of pure imagination, where the novel is made poetry and the reader has to engage with the previously unimagined on almost every page. Where is this going? What do we learn? We learn that there are things under the sun and moon (and witnessed by Sun or Moon) which we had never imagined. Which, because they have been imagined, possess the possibility of being real.

If I was to curate a literature course, this would be one of the first books I would put on the reading list. I would hazard a guess that Tutuola is writing under the influence of an oral storytelling tradition. A world where the story has no beginning or end, it is a restless continuation, which the audience can drop in or out of at any moment. Stories lurk within stories and every new stop along the road is a field of play, a space for the storyteller to dazzle you with the unfeasible; to bring the unimaginable to life. Our culture, trapped in the teleological narrative, is consumed by beginnings, endings and middles. Does life really work this way? Or do we shape the narratives of our lives to fit this model? Surely it's truer in some ways to see the world as a constant space of non-learning, a constant encounter with the remarkable, lurking around the corner, Superwomen and giants, famines and plenty. Tutuola's text often feels as though it lacks all direction, as though it's in danger of suffocating beneath the weight of its invention, but then you keep going, you round a corner, you discover something new...

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