The Palm-Wine Drinkard

by Amos Tutuola. Grove Press, 1994 (originally published 1952).

The hero of this "brief, thronged, grisley and bewitching story," as the poet Dylan Thomas called it, is a devoted drinker of palm-wine -- so devoted that drinking palm-wine is his only occupation. His father hires an expert tapster to supply his son with drink, and before long he is drinking (with some help from his friends) a total of 225 kegs of palm-wine a day.

One day disaster strikes. The tapster dies in a fall from a palm tree, and our hero is unable to find a suitable replacement. "When I saw that there was no palm-wine for me again, and nobody could tap it for me, then I thought within myself that old people were saying that the whole people who had died in this world, did not go to heaven directly, but they were living in one place somewhere in this world. So that I said that I would find out where my palm-wine tapster who had died was."

So begins this unusual small epic, written by a civil service messenger with six years of elementary education. Steeped in Yoruba storytelling traditions but peppered with modern-day references, crowded with strange monsters and improbable events told with perfect sincerity, and enlivened with psychologically charged imagery that would make even a non-Freudian sit up and take notice, this tale violates dozens of grammatical rules and novelistic conventions yet provides in abundance the one indispensable quality of literature: it is alive.

The palm-wine drinkard, armed with a supply of juju, sets out from village to village in search of his tapster. After seven months he meets an old man who is actually a god, and who promises to tell him where his tapster is if he will find the house of Death and bring him back in a net. "When I reached his (Death's) house, he was not at home by that time, he was in his yam garden which was very close to his house, and I met a small rolling drum in his verandah, then I beat it to Death as a sign of salutation." Annoyed to be visited by a living man, Death commands the drum strings to tighten around the drinkard, but the drinkard retaliates with his juju by making the "ropes of the yams in his garden" tighten around Death. They release each other, and Death, seeming to relent, shows the drinkard around his property and gives him a bed for the night.

After surviving another attempt to kill him the drinkard succeeds in capturing Death and hauls him back to the village of the old man, who had hoped to get rid of the drinkard and is shocked to see him still alive. Death escapes, and as a result "has no permanent place to dwell or stay, and we are hearing his name about in the world."

Many more adventures follow. The drinkard rescues a beautiful young woman from a Skull who has equipped himself as a "complete gentleman" by renting body parts from various other creatures. The drinkard marries the young woman, and before they reach the Deads' Town they face dangers and challenges on Wraith-Island, in Unreturnable-Heaven's town, and with the Red-people of Red-town. They are helped by Faithful-Mother and by the benevolent creatures Drum, Dance, and Song, and threatened by the Invisible-Pawn, the hungry-creature, and by the eerie sight of 400 dead babies marching down a road with sticks in their hands. What does it all mean? It would be too bold to say for sure, but this odd and fascinating story sends the imagination in unexpected directions.

From The Palm-Wine Drinkard:

We met about 400 dead babies on that road who were singing the song of mourning and marching to Deads' Town at about two o'clock in the mid-night and marching towards the town like soldiers, but these dead babies did not branch into the bush as the adult-deads were doing if they met us, all of them held sticks in their hands. But when we saw that these dead babies did not care to branch for us then we stopped at the side for them to pass peacefully, but instead of that, they started to beat us with the sticks in their hands, then we began to run away inside the bush from these babies, although we did not care about any risk of that bush which might happen to us at night, because these dead babies were the most fearful creatures for us.