Obituary: Amos Tutuola

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The Independent Online
Amos Tutuola was not the first African novelist in the English language - according to how you define a novel, that honour probably belongs to a Gold Coast writer called R.E. Obeng for Eighteenpence (1941) - but he was certainly the first to attract international attention.

Indeed, he could hardly have had more distinguished literary godparents, because it was T.S. Eliot at Faber and Faber who recommended that his first book, The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads' Town, should be published in 1952 and it was Dylan Thomas who gave it its first prominent review, when he praised this "brief, thronged, grisly and bewitching . . . tall, devilish story".

The Palm-Wine Drinkard has become a classic of modern African literature, widely taught and successfully adapted as a folk opera in Nigeria. In it Tutuola retells many of the stories he first heard as a child in Abeokuta, a Yoruba-speaking town in western Nigeria where he was born in 1920.

This tale of a man so besotted with palm-wine that he ventures into the next world to find his deceased tapster brings together many of the strange and supernatural stories upon which Yoruba culture is partly founded. There is, for example, the spectre of the Complete Gentlemen whom a lady follows into the bush.

I could not blame the lady for following the Skull as a complete gentlemen to his house at all. Because if I were a lady, no doubt I would follow him to wherever he would go, and still as I was a man I would jealous him more than that, because if this gentleman went to the battle field, surely, enemy would not kill him or capture him and if bombers saw him in a town which was to be bombed, they would not throw bombs on his presence, and if they did throw it, the bomb itself would not explode until this gentleman would leave that town, because of his beauty.

This idiosyncratic English came naturally to Tutuola, though there were those who thought it an affected naivete, particularly as it stayed with him throughout his writing life. Others felt that he was a bad model for younger readers. In fact there could hardly have been a better one. Tutuola was a born story-teller, taking traditional oral material and re-imagining it inimitably. In his way he was, though very different in method and craft, the Grimm or Perrault of Nigerian story-telling, refashioning old tales in a unique way which made them speak across cultures.

Tutuola left his parents' home when he was seven to work as a servant to one F.O. Monu. At the age of 14 he started his schooling, paid for by Mr Monu. Two years at Salvation Army School in Abeokuta were followed by a year at Lagos High School and then two more back in Abeokuta. With the death of his father in 1939 his formal education came to an end.

He learned to be a blacksmith and worked as such with the RAF from 1942. After the Second World War, in 1946, he became a messenger in the Department of Labour in Lagos. "I was still in this hardship and poverty, when one night, it came to my mind to write my first book The Palm-Wine Drinkard and I wrote it in a few days successfully because I was a story-teller when I was in the school."

The Palm-Wine Drinkard was not in fact Tutuola's first attempt at a written narrative. This was The Wild Hunter in the Bush of the Ghosts written in 1948 but unpublished until 1982.

There followed, after the success of The Palm-Wine Drinkard, a number of books with evocative folkloric titles and the same mixture of comic gusto, surrealistic fantasy and awe at the mysteries of the terrifying unknown which lies just beyond the limits of our familiar territory. They include My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954), The Brave African Huntress (1968), The Feather Woman of the Jungle (1962), The Witch Herbalist of the Remote Town (1980), and Pauper, Brawler and Slanderer (1987).

Tutuola was a shy man who did not travel much. On 13 December 1983 he appeared at the Africa Centre in London and effortlessly charmed an audience which realised that it was not only hearing legends retold, but was in the presence of a legend.

He was an Honorary Citizen of New Orleans and occasionally participated in writing programmes outside Nigeria, but he was not at ease away from his homeland. He married Victoria Tutuola in 1947 and had four sons and four daughters. In International Who's Who his entry follows Desmond Tutu's. There is no doubt that Amos Tutuola has made as great a contribution to the story of modern Africa.

Alastair Niven

Amos Tutuola, writer: born Abeo-kuta, Nigeria 1920; married 1947 Victoria Tutuola (four sons, four daughters); died Ibadan, Nigeria 8 June 1997.