The Palm-Wine Drinkard

book by Amos Tutuola

annotation by Diane Sherlock

The Palm-Wine Drinkard is a novella of connected stories based on Yoruba folktales written by Amos Tutuola, a Christian Yoruba. It is not surprising that the reader can ‘hear’ the stories while reading them as the Nigerian Tutuola came out of a strong oral tradition and was first generation literate. We follow the Palm-Wine Drinkard, eldest son of the “richest man in town” who “had no other work than to drink palm-wine.” The novella resonated with me for several personal reasons: my great-grandmother was from West Africa and an uncle, Sir Philip Sherlock, wrote several books of Anansi folktales for a Caribbean audience. Anansi stories, centering on a trickster spider, originated with the Asante tribe of West Africa, primarily in Nigeria’s neighbor, Ghana. The Yoruba folktales that Tutuola uses are similar.

The narrator begins his journey when the tapster his father secured for him dies on a Sunday, the day of rest underscoring the narrator’s unwarranted burden on his tapster.Within this overarching narrative are two main story lines, the first concerning the attainment of the magic egg; the second, its use and abuse. Traditional African themes of fertility, reciprocity, and destruction, specifically as a direct result of greed are all on display here without the harshness of a work like Peter Brooks’ Ik and without the sermonizing of some of Tutuola’s Christian colleagues. Tutuola manages to integrate his Christian beliefs into his Yoruba heritage and work through problems of ethical reciprocity. For example, in WE AND THE WISE KING IN THE WRONG TOWN WITH THE PRINCE KILLER, there are clear echoes of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem before the sacrifice of the crucifixion. “Then we mounted the horse. After that they were following us about the town, they were beating drums, dancing, and singing…” Yet the story is also purely African, set firmly in the bush.

There are many mirror elements in the narrative such as the tohosu baby following the marriage of the narrator and another that follows the recalibrating of that marriage.Since the Yoruba believe that life is preserved through children, a monstrous child that turns the natural order upside down is a striking and dramatic element. The tohosu baby born from a thumb rather than womb is voracious, “stronger than the whole town” and a threat to the existence of everyone the tohosu meets. This is one of the strongest ways that greed leading to destruction is illustrated and is retold in a different form near the end when the townspeople become demanding, voracious for the food produced by the magic egg. The magic egg’s production is placed after the husband and wife are in the hungry creature’s stomach, not unlike Jonah and the whale. Hunger, satiation, famine, then greed and destruction are revisited in each of the stories to varying degrees until by the end of the book, the narrator produces whips from the egg to disperse the greedy crowd who make incessant demands on him for food.

The centerpiece of the book is the trip to Deads’ Town and is preceded by a story of sacrifice and retribution (PRINCE KILLER). Deads’ Town is drawn as distinct with its own methods, rhythms and customs apart from the living. Some of Tutuola’s work is reminiscent of the psychedelic lyrics from the sixties (“I know what it’s like to be dead” from the Beatles, for example). It is as if Tutuola uses Yoruba legends to open doors in the mind that Western artists opened with drugs.

From Tutuola, I learned not to be afraid to repeat story elements to create a spiral effect in narrative, returning, in both cases, to the theme of greed. He repeatedly shows instances of greed such as the wife returning to retrieve her “gold trinket,” which results in the return of the tohosu in the form of the half-bodied baby. He does he shy away from the grotesque and fantastic, not only through the tohosu but also the ‘complete gentleman’ who discards body parts and finally flesh to become a skull.

Though he predates it, he follows Vonnegut’s sixth rule for writing: Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of. This is something I’ve struggled with, but it gets easier when I see how it makes for a better tale. Most of this comes in the form of the tohosu,but also in the narrator’s struggles with Death. Tutuola’s point does not seem to be to test the mettle of the narrator, who is not exactly sweet nor innocent, but to weave an entertaining story, which he does. At the same time, the author repeatedly makes the point vital to survival of the Yoruba, Africa in general, and finally to the world audience, about the dangers of greed.

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