I first heard about The Palm-Wine Drinkard a few months ago when a lecturer mentioned that it was a classic of postcolonial literature. I wrote it down on my Christmas list in the middle of November and promptly forgot about it until Christmas morning, when I was presented with a copy. Of the many books I received that morning, it was the first I turned to. It looked like a gentle read – a paperback of few more than one hundred pages incongruously slipped in with the rest of the tomes I needed for next term – and the lurid, patterned cover drew my eye.
I have rarely been so refreshed by a book as by The Palm-Wine Drinkard. The first African novel (Tutuola was Nigerian) published in English beyond Africa, it tells the story of the eponymous ‘drinkard’, a man addicted to palm wine whose rich father pays for his tapster, so that the drinkard’s supply of palm wine is unlimited. When the tapster dies unexpectedly, the unnamed protagonist must go to Dead Town to retrieve the tapster to resume his supply of palm wine. On the way, he encounters obstacles as varied as the spirits of the dead, a skull who borrows body parts to dress as a gentleman and kidnap young women and a terrible baby born from his wife’s thumb who threatens the world. Yet such is Tutuola’s style that we accept this as the norm. Published in 1952, it’s often seen as one of the first examples of magical realism, where the irrational is inherent to the world view of the novel. Tutuola effortlessly intertwines Yoruba folklore with the narrative of a quest to create a novel unlike any other in the 1950s. His use of pidgin English is deliberate, creating a world set apart from the traditional narrative of the Western novel. In the words of Wole Soyinka:
“What an imaginative rupture of spelling, to have turned a negative association into a thing of acceptance, if not exactly approval. Not ‘drunkard’ but – ‘drinkard’. Difficult to damn ‘drinkinness’ with the same moralistic fervour as drunkenness. The social opprobrium attached to the grammar-strict word is dissipated and the anti-hero is accepted as a first-rate raconteur.”
And it’s true – we don’t condemn the ‘drinkard’ as we might the drunkard. The drunkard is an economic term; it’s the same as lout, someone who spends that precious commodity, time, irresponsibly for society. But ‘drinkard’ – that is a word totally unknown to us, and suggests a relationship with both language and alcohol which is totally defined by the protagonist. It’s something new, something subversive, something exciting.
Unsurprisingly, regarding The Palm-Wine Drinkard as a classic has always been somewhat controversial. It was panned when it was first published; Tutuola’s hybrid English was seen as a mark of near-illiteracy in Europe, whilst African critics derided it for presenting African people as superstitious alcoholics. It was the opinion of Dylan Thomas, later backed up by influential Western thinkers like Sartre, that swung public opinion, as the established Western critic unfortunately could and can. It now has a firm place in the postcolonial canon, but not the mainstream fame of the novels of Tutuola’s literary descendants like Rushdie and Garcia Marquez. Yet The Palm-Wine Drinkard will whisk you away into the magical world of the questing alcoholic, searching for an unlimited supply of palm wine in the midst of the monsters and spirits which inhabit his world. It’s hard to believe that the expansive world of the Yoruba folk tale is condensed so easily into such a short book, yet Tutuola’s world will stay with me far longer than the Christmas afternoon I neglected my family for it.