Saturday, February 15, 2020

Amos Tutuola, The Palm-Wine Drinkard; My Life in the Bush of Ghosts


Opening Passages: From The Palm-Wine Drinkard:

I was a palm-wine drinkard since I was a boy of ten years of age. I had no other work more than to drink palm-wine in my life. In those days we did not know other money, except COWRIES, so that everything was very cheap, and my father was the richest man in our town.

My father got eight children and I was the eldest among them, all of the rest were hard workers, but I myself was an expert palm-wine drinkard. I was drinking palm-wine from morning till night and from night till morning. By that time I could not drink ordinary water at all except palm-wine.

But when my father noticed that I could not do any work more than to drink, he engaged an expert palm-wine tapster for me; he had no other work more than to tap palm-wine every day. (p. 191)

From My Life in the Bush of Ghosts:

I was seven years old before I understood the meaning of "bad" and "good", because it was at that time I noticed carefully that my father married three wives as they were doing in those days, if it is not common nowadays. My mother was the last married among the rest and she only bore two sons but the rest bore only daughters. So by that the two wives who had only daughters hated my mother, brother and myself to excess as they believed that no doubt my brother and myself would be the rulers of our father's house and also all his properties after his death. My brother was eleven years old then and I myself was seven. So it was at this stage I quite understood the meaning of "bad" because of hatred and had not yet known the meaning of "good". (p. 17)

Summary: The narrator of The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads' Town is, as his opening passage suggests, the son of a rich man, who, being the sort of man to set people to work at what they are good at, hires a palm-wine tapster in order to support his son's talent at drinking palm-wine. Palm-wine is made from the sap of a palm or similar tree; you cut the flower and it oozes a very sweet white liquid. It ferments very quickly, turning into a mildly alcoholic beverage in about two hours. So the expert palm-wine tapster will tap the palms every day, early morning and afternoon, and in just a couple of hours there will be enough alcohol for a party. But, alas, one day tragedy strikes; sometimes you have to climb quite high to tap the palm, and the palm-wine tapster falls to his death. A search for other tapsters discovers that they just don't measure up; they can't tap enough to supply the son, much less entire parties. So there's only one thing to do: the palm-wine drinkard is going to have to set out to find the dead palm-wine tapster and bring him back. It will be a harrowing journey, in which the palm-wine drinkard, who starts boldly giving out his name as "Father of the gods who could do everything in this world" to the astonishment of everyone he meets, tangles with ghosts and monsters -- Death, Skull, tiny creatures of Wraith-Island, unknown creatures of Unreturnable-Heaven's Town, Red-People of the Red Town, the Invisible Pawn, the Hungry-Creatures, and more, until he finally finds the expert palm-wine tapster in the Deads' Town. It turns out that it's impractical to bring back the dead, but he will get a magic egg that makes palm-wine, which would solve things if only people weren't so greedy. Along the way he will also meet a woman who will become his wife. She had made the mistake of following a beautiful unknown man (one of the section headings is the salutary moral advice, "Don't follow unknown man's beauty") who, it turns out, had rented all his beautiful parts and was really just Skull; after he rescues her, she helps him get through all the trials of trying to bring someone back from the dead.

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is, like The Palm-Wine Drinkard, a journey tale. A young boy is forced to flee into the Bush of Ghosts to avoid slavery; he doesn't know enough about good and bad to know just how evil things in the Bush of Ghosts can be. He will end up wandering the Bush of Ghosts for twenty-four years, although his travels once he enters seem to be somewhat disjointed in time. He will end up marrying ghosts twice -- again, not having learned enough about good and bad before entering, he does not understand that this is not something an earthly mortal should do. The first time is to a beautiful ghostess; they go to the church on the wedding day, but the wedding faces a hitch when it turns out the preacher is the Devil, and because he is a mortal, he can't wed the ghostess before he is baptized. Since he doesn't know enough about good and bad, he agrees to be baptized into the Devil's church, which he immediately regrets because the Devil baptizes with fire and boiling water. That marriage doesn't work out. He later marries a "Superlady" who rebelled against her family's evil and can do anything; they get along well enough for a while, but when their son is born half ghost and half mortal, doing everything half and half, it leads to irreconcilable differences and she throws him out. When he returns from the Bush of Ghosts he is caught by slavers again, but eventually finds his family. He keeps thinking he might go back to the Bush of Ghosts, though.

There are a great many suggestive ideas in both stories. One that I found particularly interesting, which is found in both, is that the reason there are ghosts or supernatural monsters is that any mortal can die but you have to go through training to be Dead.

Both works have a folktale-feel. Of the two tales, The Palm-Wine Drinkard is the more fun; the obsessiveness of the palm-wine drinkard's thirst does more to drive its story, the jokes and absurd juxtapositions are often hilarious, and there's a kind of biting realism to the portrayal of human motivations even in the midst of all of the surrealism of the towns of ghosts and of the Deads. I did find My Life in Bush of Ghosts quite interesting in a number of ways, though. The young boy flees from slavers into the Bush of Ghosts, but when he returns he runs right into slavers again. Time has passed, but nothing has changed. And I think the juxtaposition of slavery and the Bush of Ghosts is interesting, because the result is that the difference between the Bush of Ghosts and the realm of mortals is less than you might think. Every traveler knows that you don't risk the dangers and evils of the Bush of Ghosts, but slave-wars are exactly the kind of thing you find ghosts doing in the Bush of Ghosts. And when the wanderer returns, he fears nothing in the mortal world because, as he says, "it is in the Bush of Ghosts the 'fears', 'sorrows', 'difficulties' all kinds of the 'punishments' etc. start and there they end" (p. 174).

Favorite Passages: From The Palm-Wine Drinkard, when the drinkard finds the tapster:

...He said that when he reached there, he spent two years in training and after that he had qualified as a full dead man, then he came to this Deads' Town and was living with deads and he said that he could not say what happened to him before he died in my town. But when he said so, I told him that he fell down from a palm-tree on a Sunday evening when he was tapping palm-wine and we buried him at the foot of the very palm-tree on which he fell.

Then he said that if that should be the case, he over-drank on that day. (p. 278)

From My Life in the Bush of Ghosts:

After some weeks he handed me to one of the principals of his schools as a new scholar, then I started to learn how to read and write. In the evening my cousin would be teaching me how to be acting as a dead man and within six months I had qualified as a full dead man. And again as I had a quick brain at that time, so I finished my schooling after a few years. Then I was sent without hesitation direct to the Deads' town as a student to learn how to judge cases , as police and also all the branches of the court works. having become expert in this field, then I returned and started the works.....(p. 152)

Recommendation: The Palm-Wine Drinkard is Highly Recommended and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is Recommended. I think both stories work better if you can find a stretch of time to read them; if you read them only a bit at a time, it is easy to get lost. It's the Bush of Ghosts, after all; everything is a little outside of normal.

Amos Tutuola, The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Grove Press (New York: 1994).

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