Sunday, February 02, 2020

Fortnightly Book, February 2

It's almost happenstance that Amos Tutuola became an author. Born as Olatubusun (much later taking the name Amos when he was baptized) in a village just outside the Nigerian city of Abeokuta, where his father was an administrator. In his teenage years he attended the Anglican Central School in Abeokuta, for a total of about six years of formal schooling, and then dropped out when his father died to train as a coppersmith and blacksmith, eventually plying his skills as a member of the Royal Air Force during World War II. After the war, he got a job in Lagos as a messenger for the Nigerian Department of Labour (which he did not like at all). He happened one day to see the sort of magazine that would get circulated around by the information services of various Commonwealth countries. What had caught his attention was that the theme of the magazine was Nigeria, and it had been full of excellent photographs of the Yoruba sculptures and practices with which he had grown up. He was enjoying it and then he came on a page of advertisement by book publishers, one of which was a collection of Yoruba tales, and the idea clicked: he had always been good at telling stories, why not write a book? He set down to write it, finished it in a few days, and that is how his first novel, whose full title was The Palm Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads' Town. And having written it -- he put it aside, having no idea how to get a book published. But he later bought another magazine, and happened to come across an advertisement by a publisher asking for manuscripts. He sent it off.

The publisher was Lutheran World Press, a Christian publishing house specializing in religious texts, and they must have been quite surprised to receive this manuscript with not a drop of Christianity, filled with Yoruba gods and ghosts. But the people at Lutheran World Press seem to have been reasonably decent and also to have had a good sense of what could be published, so instead of simply rejecting it and sending it back, as most publishers would, they wrote him and said that, while they only published Christian religious texts, if he would give them some time they would find a suitable publisher for him. And they kept their word. About a year later, Faber & Faber wrote him, having been given a copy of the manuscript by Lutheran World Press, asking if the work was his own or if he were transcribing someone else's stories, and they hoped to be able to publish it. And thus The Palm Wine Drinkard was published in 1952. Faber & Faber was expecting it to sell modestly, but it quickly took off when people like Dylan Thomas started recommending it to everybody, and within a few years became one of the most widely read and highly globally praised African novels of the twentieth century. Ironically, although perhaps not surprisingly, it took a longer time for Nigerians themselves to warm up to it. The novel is written in nonstandard and colloquial English with scarcely any effort at polish at all, exhibits an unabashed enthusiasm for back-country Nigerian folktale themes, and showed no concern whatsoever with what often occupied educated and cultured Nigerians of the day, namely, showing that all the stereotypes of Africans as backwards and superstitious primitives were wrong, heedlessly embracing any facet of Yoruba culture and legend without the slightest regard for what Europeans would think of it. But the unrelenting success of it even broke down their caution, and Tutuola's work became one of the foundational work in the development of a more relaxed Nigerian style of novel.

Tutuola followed The Palm Wine Drinkard with his second novel, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, in 1954. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is an independent work, although The Palm Wine Drinkard refers to it several times despite the fact that it had not been published or even written yet; this strange displacement fits the work itself, in which time is disjointed and things regularly occur out of sequence. Neither it nor any of Tutuola's later works would match the unimaginable success of The Palm Wine Drinkard, although it did quite well in its own terms.

So the Fortnightly Book will be double, since I have an edition that has them both: The Palm Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Both deal with the line between life and death and the way the world goes sideways when a mortal crosses into the realm of the dead. In The Palm Wine Drinkard, a man who spends all his days drinking palm wine, with his own dedicated palm wine tapster, is upset when the tapster dies and he can't find anyone who is as good at getting him his palm wine. So he sets out to find out where the dead tapster went so he can get that endless supply of palm wine again. It will be a strange and dangerous adventure, requiring among other things kidnapping Death and outwitting a wide variety of dangerous and unreliable ghosts. The narrator of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is a young man, the son of a third wife, and the first two wives, who have no sons, hate him, his mother, and his brother with a malicious hatred. This hatred will set him off, separated from his family, on an adventure through the Bush of Ghosts, where time does not work as it should, and he must figure out how to survive a series of towns of dangerous ghosts of which he knows nothing.

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