Amos Tutuola : a didactic style

The long trek of Pidgin English in the Western publishing world

(part III)
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The Novel Harare North by the Zimbabwean author Brian Chikwava was published in April last by Jonathan Cape. The London described as « Harare North » is like a broken reflection of the real Harare. This fissure is translated by the use of broken English, or pidgin English. Quite a risk for an African author when the world of Western publishing has always demanded of authors from the African continent that they show command of the language. In this triangular relationship between publisher, author and language, Amos Tutuola is a particular case, both an example and a counter-example.

At the beginning of the fifties, a man, a mere employee of the Ministry of Labour in Lagos, then capital of Nigeria, came across a journal published by the Information Service, the cover of which showed an impressive statue of an Orisha, the name given to a Yoruba god. The divinities, customs and festivities of his people were described in detail in the magazine. What’s more, the man discovered the existence of a book of Yoruba tales. Of his tales.
Born in 1920 of Christian parents, the man had nonetheless been brought up in a world of traditional religious icons. His grand father was an Odafin, spiritual and administrative chief of part of the city of Abeokuta. A special room on the family property contained masks and statues honouring the gods. He also met storytellers whose oral tales included mime, music, rituals, witchcraft and dance. And whose stories included poetry, proverbs, enigmas, parabols and songs. (1) The young Olatubusun, for whom the supernatural and tales are interwoven, is attracted by the art of story telling. At school he was known for having a gift for that art. When he read the journal of the Information Service, he decided to write a tale the title of which, The Palm-Wine Drinkard (2), is itself an invention: the word « drinkard » does not exist.
Why not believe in such a genesis for one of the great classics of African literature? In effect the reappropriation by an African, pen in hand, of his own people’s tales, presented by the Colonial Administration. Why not indeed ? Because the one who relates this genesis is indeed a genius of a story teller who took great pleasure, when interviewed, to lose the interviewee in mystery. His name is Amos Tutuola. He took this name on his grand-father’s death, when the members of his family europeanized their own names. A biblical first name (Amos) and his father’s first name (Tutuola) as family name. Aged 7, he was employed as a servant by a family friend who, in exchange, payed for him to go to school. According to Amos (3), he first went to school – to the Salvation Army school of Abeokuta – in 1934, aged 14. He then went to Lagos to study before going back to Abeokuta. His father, who had paid for his school fees since his return to his native town, died in 1939 and Amos had to interrupt his studies to work.Having jumped several classes (from Class I to Standard I, then from Standard II to Standard IV) (4), he was at that time in Standard VI of the Senior Primary School.
What would this mean in today’s terms? In his postface to Tutuola, mon bon maître (5), Michèle Laforest, French translator of several works by Amos Tutuola, suggests that it equates to the second year of secondary school in the French system. But it’s difficult, quasi impossible, to compare the two systems. The criteria for education in the British colonies were very different to that of the French colonies. The British educational system was less academic, more pragmatic than its French counterpart and less inclined to impose the integration of the cultural norm of the metropole on the local populations.
The country’s own language was used in the lower classes of Elementary school and pidgin English – a greatly simplified form of English – was often used in the higher classes of the Elementary school system. This approach did indeed limit the command of the English language for those who then went on to Secondary school. But it did provide for the transmission and preservation of the culture of the local population as it was closer to the structure of the local language. Tutuola’s level of education was probably between that of Elementary school and Secondary school.
After interrupting his studies, Amos Tutuola joined his brother in Lagos where he learnt to be a blacksmith before joining the British army as a blacksmith during the war. At the end of the war, when all the demobilized soldiers returned home looking for work, he found only one job which didn’t satisfy him but which he kept until the publication of his first novel: he became a messenger.
After his first editorial success, he worked as an employee for the Nigerian radio, published close to a dozen other books, worked in research and was an associated lecturer at the universities of Ife (Nigeria) and Iowa (USA).
He died in 1997.
Publishing Audacity

Tutuola’s life, as difficult as it may have been for him, was somewhat standard in all disadvantaged societies, be it in today’s third world or until not so long ago in the Western world: that of an intelligent and determined child and youth who is forced to give up studying and accept a frustrating occupation for material and family reasons. The writing of a book in these conditions however is more unusual – but is not rare. But what was original in the case of Amos Tutuola was that the novel should actually achieve publication.
Contrary to what Tutuola led readers to believe, The Palm-Wine Drinkard was not his first text, which was written after seeing the article in the colonial service information letter. Indeed, the specialist of African literature Bernth Lindfors recounted that at the end of the 1940s he offered Focal Press, an English publisher of books on photography, a manuscript on Nigerian spirits with photos of these ghosts… (6) The publisher was interested by the offer and Tutuola sent the publisher the text The Wild Hunter in the Bush of Ghosts (7) several months later: 76 handwritten pages with 16 photos of sketches of the spirits evoked in the text. The director of Focal Press, who was a technical editor, did no publish the text but bought and kept the manuscript as a curiosity.
This does beg the question of Tutuola’s spontaneity. The rough writer is rare, particularly if he decides to to send a manuscript to a publisher himself. Such an act implies a strategy, however simple. Besides, Tutuola does not seem to have been the innocent author he made himself out to be. Bernth Lindfors demonstrated that the narrative structure and title of The Wild Hunter in the Bush of Ghosts had similarities with a story by D.O. Fagunwa, published in Yoruba in 1938 (8). In addition, in a letter addressed by Tutuola to Lindfors, he confirmed that he had read Thousand and One Nights and The Pilgrim’s Progress by JohnBunyan (1628-1688) as early as 1948, a famous novel in British culture which recounts the journey of a man who sets out for the City of Sion and who travels through places (the Slough of Despond, Vanity Fair) and meets characters (Giant Maul, Great-Heart), whose names announce the names invented by Tutuola (such as the Unreturnable-Heaven’s Town orThe Faithfull Mother). This testimonial does somewhat shatter the image of an uneducated African who came out of the bush with a manuscript under his arm.
After his first attempt and his first editorial failure, Tutuola returned to the drawing board and wrote The Palm-Wine Drinkard. This time, he sent the manuscript to a publisher specialized in missionary literature whose advertisement he saw in a Nigerian journal (9). The publisher decided not to publish the text which he saw as being incompatible with his religious catalogue. But he was fascinated by the story and submitted it first to an academic publisher, who refused it and then to Faber & Faber, a prestigious London publisher who had published T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and the poetry of James Joyce. A few months later, Tutuola received a letter from Faber & Faber asking him – acoording to Tutuola (10) – to allow them to publish the manuscript on their own terms. The Nigerian author received an example of the work, published in May 1952, six months after this letter.
In fact, despite their request, the publishers of Faber & Faber had hardly touched the text although it was written in a particularly simple language, included numerous repetitions, grammatical, syntactical and lexicographical approximations and a certain number of spelling mistakes. A fac-simile of a page from the original manuscript and annoted by the publisher was published in the American edition of 1994 (11) and showed that only very obvious spelling (e.g. at all instead of atal) or grammatical mistakes (went instead of go, missing word, etc.) had been corrected. The rest had been left untouched.
This editorial audacity is worth mentoning for its exceptional nature. Thanks to an article by the poet Dylan Thomas in The Observer which praised the novel and referred to his language as « new English », the audacity paid off. The work was met with success from a large public yet to be belied. To the great displeasure, at the time of publication, of the other African authors who felt that Tutuola presented a disparaging image of African literature by using pidgin English.
Why did Faber & Faber publish the novel without editing it ? Most probably because of the work’s extraordinary power. But they could have reworked the text – or had it reworked. Did they think they were faced with a stylistic invention worthy of being presented without modification? Or on the contrary with raw material which was worth presenting for its anthropological quality alone ?
And was Dylan Thomas right to talk about « new English » ?
It’s probable that none of these hypotheses is correct…
The test of language
In his own testimonial about his beginnings as an author (mentioned earlier (12)), Tutuola concludes the story of the publication of The Palm-Wine Drinkard with these words: « That is how I came to be a writer. »
As we have seen, Tutuola in fact started writing earlier and possibly thought about writing even earlier (13). Maybe reading Fangunwa actually gave him the idea to also write fantastic tales. They probably inspired him. But Tutuola wrote in English, not in Yoruba. This makes all the difference: by adopting this language, he didn’t transcribe legends and local dreams but rather transmitted them into a different cultural world (14). He therefore needs to pass the test of the language of that foreign world.
Tutuola’s editorial « strategy » (as suspected), may have been basic but it is coupled – whether we like it or not, and whether it was his intention – with a linguistic strategy : how best translate the fruit of his imagination into the language of the recipient which was learnt at school, spoken at work and which will be judged by people who are probably not very different to his immediate bosses and to his former teachers?
The resulting tale is one of unbridled fantasy written in an « didactic » style.
The teacher and the black board
The imagination of Tutuola was indeed unbridled. What is the story of the The Palm-Wine Drinkard ? The man has been getting drunk on palm wine since the age of 10. To enable him to satisfy his needs, his father, the richest man in the city, gives him a palm plantation and hires a palm-wine tapper who keeps him supplied with alcohol from dawn to dusk. Unfortunately, the narrator’s supplier passes away six months after his father’s death and his opportunistic friends disappear too. Unable to find someone to replace his supplier, the narrator goes off looking for him, for he knew, as his ancestors did, that the dead remain on earth a little while longer before going up to heaven.
His quest seems endless and takes him through the bush, forests, towns and villages inhabited by extraordinary characters : a man whose limbs he rents from others then returns to them, a leg-less bulimic baby, beings who look like white colums 500 metres high, a king who talks like a boiler, a scaled hippopotamus, an invisible servant, leaf-less palm trees with human heads, a spectral island, a tree with hands which hide a house and a town, a red city full of red men and animals, etc…
And of course, the narrator who calls himself « Father of gods who could do everything in this world » always manages to pull through sometimes quite frightening ordeals which are put across his path and that of his wife whom he married on his adventures. He eventually reaches the « Deads’ Town » where he finds his palm-wine tapper. But he realizes that the dead cannot live in the world of the living (and the opposite is true too: men and animals walk backwards for example in the world of the dead), he goes back to his native city with a magic egg which will enable him to feed and quench the thirst of its hunger-stricken inhabitants. Other incidents take place but the novel basically ends on this note, on more traditional stories drawing on references to Heaven and Earth.
The Palm-Wine Drinkard is a novel of fantasy of a rather classical structure (a quest, a number of ordeals) which is noted however for the variety of registers (15) : mythical, legendary, horrific, absurd… There are off-the-wall notes too in this tale and one wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Tutuola was not only influenced by Thousand and one Nights but also by Alice in Wonderland. For a European reader, it’s the baroque register, the exaggerations, which are the most striking: money is counted in billions, people are counted in millions, sizes are measured in thousands, time is measured in months and years.
But the most surprising element of this novel is the contrast between its excentric content and the ordered, dicdactic, straightforward form adopted. It’s as if Tutuola wants to guide the reader through his character’s amazing adventures to avoid losing them on the way. He provides extra information, he repeats things, he comes back to some element mentioned earlier in the narrative, he gives comparisons. He seems to be wanting to justify his choice of words. He confirms his discourse to make sure the reader finds no flaw to his make-believe realism : «  Then I began to travel on Death’s road, and I spent about eight hours to reach there, but to my suprise I did not meet anybody on this road until I reached there and I was afraid because of that. When I reached his (Death’s) house, he was not at home by this 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. But when he (Death) heard the sound of the drum, he said thus: – ‘Is that man still alive or dead?’ Then I replied ‘I am still alive and I am not a dead man.’  » (16)
To construct his narrative – in the real sense of the word, just like one would use lego bricks – Tutuola gathers his tools and lays them out on the table. The « zero degree writing » (17) is not L’Étranger (The Stranger) by Camus, but rather Tutuola’s strange tale. Some looked for his inventiveness but he does not seek to show any originality, he just wants to convince with all the tools made available to him and there aren’t that many: he multiplies the use of « Then« , of « So », of » Then » at the beginning of a sentence (which Queneau often eliminates or diversifies in his translation), he uses the past historic practically all the time (whereas Queneau switches from the present to the past historic to the imperfect tense) ; when he hasn’t found the right word, he creates another using existing words (a relatively common exercise in English thus easier to do than in French) ; uses parentheses to clear up any possible misunderstanding ; includes quotation marks to show his good faith when he’s at a risk of not being credible. Queneau, who was a master of invention (he published Zazie dans le métro, another jungle inhabited by unusual beings such as Widow « Mouaque » or the « Laverdure » parrot (18)), held back his creativity in his adaptation of the The Palm-Wine Drinkard. But he did not go as far as taking out all stylistic effects and reproducing only « the schoolteacher at the blackboard approach » (19).
As for Dylan Thomas, he was probably wrong to talk about »new English« . Tutuola’s English is only new to whose ear has forgotten how English is learnt, particular in the Nigerian villages of the 1930s. And how it’s spoken in the streets of Lagos.
Michèle Laforest is right when she writes : »Here the tone of orality is of a different order [than that of the familiar style used in modern Anglo-American novels], as the spoken style, very obvious locally, is added to an ultra-conventional and academic English, in other words the English that is spoken as it was taught in Nigeria in the 1930s » (20). And Dominique Julien is right too when he says :  » [Tutuola] succeeds somewhat naturally what Queneau has made it his objective to recreate. He writes not as one speaks but as he speaks. »
But beyond this: Tutuola did not write as he (probably) spoke. He wrote as he believed he should write, as best he could.  He did not create a new language. It would be anachronistic to see him as either a disciple or even a predecessor of Raymond Queneau. Queneau who refers to « neo-French » (21) wrote in the wake of generations of academic writers and educational institutions which moulded the language. As a pure writer, he recreates the language of those who don’t write. Tutuola on the other hand wants to prove he can write. He does not recreate anything, nor does he revolutionize any institution. Or transgress anything. Quite the contrary, he tries to stick to the code of the language, he attempts to abide by its rules and to integrate the strangeness of his imagination and his tales – which are themselves quite foreign to the culture he is addressing – in the language of the other as he has learnt to speak it at primary school.
His success comes as a shock to his fellow intellectual African friends: he is seen as an intruder in this sphere for he succeeds without really mastering the language which they themselves took great pains to acquire. But he doesn’t do it on purpose. That’s not his intention. He does not provoke them, he just does his best. Nor does he provoque the anglophone critics or readers. He uses new-English without really knowing it. Just like Monsieur Jourdain when he recited prose without realizing (22).
For Tutuola the « schoolmaster » makes mistakes (he’s not the only one…). Not only does he uses an informal language (« the place that my taspter was » (23)).He also gets the sequence of tenses wrong, he leaves out prepositions (« was given [to]me » (24)), then adds them in where they’re not needed (« he did not answer to my question » (25), « since a century ago » (26)), uses the wrong relative pronoun (« human-beings which he had killed » (27)), gets in a pickle in certain sentence constructions (« To my surprise was that when it was about two o’clock in the mid-night » (28)), forgets words, gets an expression wrong (« without hurt » (29), « make urine » (30), « talk a single word » (31)) etc.
The « miracle » is that a publisher in London accepts the manuscript and barely touches it. This is precisely why Tutuola is both an example and a counter-example in the history of the publication of African literary texts. He is certainly an example for, no doubt contrary to common belief, he only seeks to conform to the rules of the hegemonic language. And he’s a counter-example in that he was published although he never achieved the confirmity he aspired to.
From Tutuola to Chikwava :
from rough language to broken english

The case of Tutoala is an exceptional one. Besides him (he continued to write and the story goes that his publisher regretted the ongoing improvements to his style), and for the ten or so years which followed the publication of The Palm-Wine Drinkard, transgressions from the norm by African authors were not accepted unless they had shown they mastered the language. Audacity such as that shown by Raharimanana in Za (32) is rare. Which is precisely why the publication of Harare North by Brian Chikwava (33), knowingly written in poor English, is worthy of mention.
And doubly so in that it is a complete reversal in comparison to the writing and publication of The Palm-Wine Drinkard. This is not linguistic innovation nor restitution of the spoken language for its wealth as was intended by Queneau. This is pidgin English, broken English, which is used as it reflects best the social environment of the African immigrant in the Western world. Pidgin English, the rough language of yesteryear, the approach language of the Western world, has at last found its place. To tell the tale of one who no longer has a place. Or who still doesn’t have a place.

Translated from French by Romaine Johnstone

1. Michael Thelwell, Introduction to Amos Tutuola, The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in The Bush of Ghosts, (1984), New York, Grove Press, 1994, p. 183.

2. In full: The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads’ Town, The tapster is the one who breaks open the barrels – generally of beer – to serve the drink it contains. The name usually given in the case of palm wine is  » palm-wine tapper « . In his French translation of the novel, entitled L’Ivrogne dans la brousse Paris, Gallimard, 1953, Coll.  » L’Imaginaire  » 2000), Queneau uses the word  » malafoutier  » (word used in the French colonies), the name given to the one who draws the palm-wine, which is closer to  » palm-wine tapper « .

3. Amos Tutuola, My Life and Activities, postface to The Palm-Wine Drinkard, (text dated 17.04.1952, when the story was first published) op. cit., pp. 303-307.

4. Ibidem.

5. Michèle Laforest,  » À travers la Vallée de la Perte et du Gain ou Comment traduire Amos Tutuola « , postface to Tutuola, mon bon maître, Bordeaux, Ed. Confluences, Coll.  » Traversées de l’Afrique « , 2007, pp. 171-175.

6. Bernth Lindfors  » Amos Tutuola : literary syncretism and the yoruba folk tradition  » in European-language writing in sub-Saharian Africa, directed by Albert S. Gérard, Budapest, Akademiai Kiado, 1986. 2 vol., Vol 2, pp. 632 et ss.

7. London, Faber & Faber, 1954; published by Bernth Lindfors in 1989 with Three Continents Press, Washington.

8. Daniel Olorunfemi Fagunwa, Ogboju ode ninu Igbo irunmale, literally « The courageous hunter in the forest of 400 spirits », London ( ?), Nelson, 1938, translated into English by Wole Soyinka in 1968 with the title The Forest of a Thousand Daemons : a hunter’s saga, Walton-on-Thames, Nelson, 1982 and published in French with the title Le preux chasseur dans la forêt infestée de démons, trad. Olaoye Abioye, Lagos, Nelson, 1989.

9. Tutuola mentioned in Michael Thelwell, op. cit., p. 186; Bernth Lindfors, op. cit., p. 637.

10. Ibidem.

11. Grove Press, op.cit., p. 208.

12. Ibidem.

13. This reminds us of Louis-Ferdinand Céline who, after the publication of Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932) (Journey to the End of the Night), had ascertained that he had simply witnessed the success of Hôtel du Nord by Eugène Dabit (1929) and that he thought he could do as well. See for instance Pierre-Edmond Robert, his preface to Céline et les Editions Denoël, 1932-1948, Paris, IMEC, 1991.

14. Michèle Laforest emphasises this dimension of transmission rather than transcription in a work written under the name Michèle Dussutour-Hammer : Amos Tutuola, Tradition orale et écriture du conte, Paris, Présence Africaine, 1976, p. 12. However she seems to place the desire to transmit before the desire to write a novel, which is a modern way of transmitting. One wonders though whether this is indeed how things happened even if Tutuola does affirm this. But transmission to whom? To write and to look for a publisher in English illustrates at least the will to assert oneself in the face of the coloniser’s cultural supremacy. And transmission of what? The Palm-Wine Drinkard is just as much the fruit of his recollection of his stories and traditional tales as that of his boundless imagination and his litterary influences (One Thousand and One Nights, Bunyan et Fangunwa). The Nigerian intellectuals even accused him of plagiarizing Fangunwa (B. Lindfors, op. cit., pp. 637-638). One can suppose that the transmission, nourrished by the cultural roots of his people, is personal. Which is of course quite legitimate and even essential for a fiction writer…

15. See Marie Leroy’s study of registers in  » L’étrangeté dans The Palm-Wine Drinkard, d’Amos Tutuola : L’élaboration d’un espace linguistique et poétique singulier « ,

16. Grove Press, op. cit., pp. 195-196.

17. Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero (1953).

18. For convergence between The Palm Wine-Drinkard and Zazie dans le métro, see Dominique Julien,  » Zazie dans la brousse « , The Romanic Review, Vol. 91, n°3, Columbia University, 2000.

19. For further reading on Dominique Julien’s analysis on the points of convergence between Queneau and Tutuola’s works, see Elsa Veret’s « Queneau, lecteur et traducteur du « néo-anglais » de Tutuola », Feb. 2009, I would homewever draw the reader’s attention to the reserves which I express in this article on the stylistic innovation of Tutuola. In addition this article seems to refer more to Queneau’s adaptation than to the original text. As is the case for instance when the article mentions the switch from the past historic to the present tense which is, as mentioned earlier, a stylistic effect introduced by Queneau and which does not appear in Tutola’s original text.

20. Michèle Laforest,  » À travers la vallée… « , op. cit., pp. 171-172.

21.  » Écrit en 1955 « , Bâtons, chiffres et lettres, Gallimard, coll.  » Idées « , pp. 65-94.  » Le bilinguisme est donc nécessaire en France, les deux idiomes choisis étant le français et l’autre le néo-français. D’une part le retour à Anatole France, de l’autre la révolution  » (p. 68) ( » Bilingualism is necessary in France, the two chosen languages being French and new French. On the one hand, Anatole France, on the other the revolution. « )

22. In Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme by Molière.

23. The Palm-Wine Drinkard, op.cit., p. 217.

24. Ditto, p.p. 221, 222.

25. Ditto, p. 194.

26. Ditto, p. 197.

27. Ibidem.

28. Ibidem.

29. Ditto, p. 224.

30. Ditto, p. 243.

31. Ditto, p. 227.

32. Paris, Philippe Rey, 2008.

33. See the first two parts of this series of articles.///Article N° : 9389


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