The reputation of Amos Tutuola (tew-tew-OH-lah) has been the subject of much controversy. Unlike the majority of African writers, who are not only university educated (and therefore well versed in and influenced by the formal structures of Western literature) but also often employ their second language with as much skill as a native speaker, Tutuola had none of this academic preparation. He began school at the age of twelve, was trained as a blacksmith, and, finding no opportunity for plying his trade, became a government messenger in Lagos. It could hardly be imagined that he might become a recognized author as a result of his daily habit of scribbling down stories on scraps of paper to abate his boredom while awaiting errand jobs as a messenger. Yet, perhaps by sheer accident of discovery and with some luck, Tutuola, an apprentice craftsman with no formal education beyond six years in missionary primary schools, is given the distinction of having written the first major modern African novel in English. Tutuola’s rise to international fame is marked by the publication of The Palm-Wine Drinkard in 1952.
The history of his achievement is extraordinary. Attracted by an advertisement from the United Society for Christian Literature, Tutuola worked feverishly on a draft of The Palm-Wine Drinkard. Clearly, the novel was unsuitable for this group. Yet it was provocative, and an intelligent reader saw its potential; it was sent to publishers Faber and Faber in London, whose editors agreed to publish it. The result established Tutuola’s career at the cost of much debate, which generally separated British and African critics. While Tutuola was heralded abroad as a naïve native genius (partly as a result of Dylan Thomas’s enthusiastic review in the Observer in 1952), African critics at home viewed the untutored bard as a literary burglar with little or no imagination. The basic argument was whether Tutuola’s natural style was brilliantly innovative or embarrassingly incompetent. Dylan Thomas called the novel “a thronged, grisly, and bewitching story,” and he admired its unusual style. Educated Africans protested that Faber’s determination to publish the work without the usual editorial corrections indicated a patronizing colonial attitude that showed a preference for a childish quality in an African writer.
This debate, so impassioned for more than three decades, cooled with Tutuola’s subsequent publications. He came to be seen as a novice writer who did not meet conventional expectations but opened up a rare world, simultaneously original and naïve. The title of his first novel is indicative of the issues raised: Is “drinkard” an accidental error, or is the usage calculatingly ingenious in its subtle modification of the expected term “drunkard”? Regardless of such questions, Tutuola’s book has achieved a fame he has not been able to equal since. After nine printings in the United States, it was translated into languages as different as Finnish, Japanese, and Serbian. It was developed into an opera and dramatized as a play repeatedly performed by the University of Ibadan’s Travelling Theatre, both in English and in a version using Yoruba, Tutuola’s native language.
The story tells of a “drinkard” whose phenomenal liquor supplies are cut off when his tapster, responsible for extracting his daily ration of palm wine, falls from a tree to his death. Driven by deprivation, the drinkard determines to follow him down to “the land of the Deads” and effect his release so that he may again serve his thirsty needs. This situation establishes that archetypal pattern, familiar in all continents, of the visitor venturing into the shades to rescue one whom death had stolen. The actual incidents are wildly imaginative, with the traveler experiencing punishments and excitements before returning with a healing and reconciling benefice to all in his village.
Tutuola continued to write novels in a similar vein. The pattern was the telling of Yoruba myth but in a manner that allowed him to incorporate a mixture of modern experience, Greek legend, Nordic monsters, and pure imagination into a unique narrative form. There are magic, bizarre transformations, and ghosts. One of the ghosts in My Life in the Bush of Ghosts has multiple television sets in her fingertips. The plots of all Tutuola’s books are remarkable and outrageous. The stories remain compelling and the language ingenious, though there is some sense of repetition when the novels are read in succession; the astounding originality of the first book is reduced to the expected through familiarity.
There is some evidence that in his later novels Tutuola exhibits greater facility and calculation in the way he handles structure and dialogue. Yet his was a natural, instinctive talent for the most part; if he had learned any more sophisticated contrivances, they probably would have undermined the ingenuity of this remarkable storyteller. Tutuola’s many honors include being named a Noble Patron of Arts by the Pan African Writers Association in 1992.