I discovered The Palm Wine Drinkard (The Drunkard in the Bush), by Amos Tutuola, in the original version when I was a student in the English department of the University of Abidjan, towards the end of the 1970s. We had a Nigerian professor, Mr. Okafor, in African literature class. He transmitted to us his passion for the oral tradition of his country. We first read the novel by DO fagunwa Forest of A Thousand Daemons: A Hunter’s Saga, translated into English by Wole Soyinka (1968). A work that has now become a classic of African literature, The Forest of a Thousand Demons is the first novel written in the Yoruba language, published in Nigeria in 1938. The story is steeped in Yoruba cosmology: supernatural beings, fantastic animals, demons, magic trees, wizards, evil spirits, ferocious hunters, etc., a whole parallel world from of the forest. This work was a great source of inspiration for Amos Tutuola.
Mr. Okafor also made us read texts from another typically Nigerian literary genre, the “ Onitsha Market Literature “. This movement born under colonization was created by often semi-literate authors who nevertheless wanted to express themselves in English, the new language of modernity. The books, or rather pamphlets, dealt with everyday experiences and concerns of ordinary people and were sold on the street in the market of Onitsha, an Ibo town in eastern Nigeria. Nollywood, the low-budget Nigerian film industry that is now very successful in Africa and the Diaspora, probably had its roots in this type of very close to people storytelling. At the time of these readings, I did not yet know that I would become a writer, but I was literally captivated by the universe of myths and fantasy.
Admittedly, having grown up in the Ivory Coast, the tales fed my imagination, from Senghor (The Beautiful History of Leuk-le-Lièvre) to Birago Diop (Tales of Amadou Koumba), by Bernard Dadié (The black loincloth) to Amadou Hampâté Bâ (Kaidara). However, these new accounts to which I had access seemed to me even denser than those which I had read until then.
In addition, our teacher, wanting to deepen our immersion, went further by organizing a trip to Nigeria. We were several students from the English department leaving by road in a bus chartered for the occasion. I still remember the University of Ibadan, where we stopped for several days. Magnificent brand new construction with a zoo within it, where I was able to admire silverback gorillas for the first time. The trip to Lagos, meanwhile, included an evening at the Shrine of Fela Kuti, the formidable musician and political opponent of military regimes.
The hunt for the curmudgeon
But what struck me the most during our stay was the visit to the Osun shrine in the Osogbo forest. It is the home of the fertility goddess Osun, who is part of the pantheon of Yoruba gods. Everywhere, sculptures, altars and pottery in honor of Osun and other deities. Fear and wonder. Years later, the memory of this journey that I would describe as initiatory will accompany me throughout my peregrinations and my writing process. Especially since in 1986 I went to live for three years in Lagos. There, I rediscovered the Yoruba pantheon in Wole Soyinka’s theater and I met Mamy Wata, half-woman, half-fish, endowed with great power and who is found in the legends of many other African countries as well as in the Caribbean. He’s one of my favorite characters.
Myths and legends are part of a people’s system of thought and lay the foundations of their identity. Sacred stories passed down from generation to generation. Writers often perceive them as a mine of inspiration to enrich their art. As a writer, I therefore very quickly thought that this part of the heritage threatened with disappearance had to find its place in an Africa in full transition in order to break with the dangers of amnesia and alienation.
The Drunkard in the Bush dates from 1952 and is the first African novel written in English. The story begins like this: “ I had been drunk on palm wine since the age of ten. I had had nothing else to do in life but to drink palm wine. »
A pretext to open the door to an unreal and comical world. The narrator-protagonist of the story, whose real name we will never know except the one he gives himself, “ Father-Of-The-Gods-Who-Can-Do-Anything-In-This-World is suddenly deprived of his daily drink when his malafoutier (the one who harvests and prepares the palm wine) falls from the top of a palm tree and dies. Thirst tormenting him and unable to replace his talented servant, he decides to go in search of him in the “ City of the Dead “. Told at a breathless pace, it is an odyssey through the bush during which our hero faces multiple seemingly insurmountable obstacles, has frightening encounters with “ strange and terrible beings », uses charms with magical powers allowing him to change his appearance to get out of trouble and continue to advance from one adventure to another. When he finally finds his malafoutier, he understands that he cannot bring him back to the world of the living and resolves to resume his journey.
A writing that does not lie
The Drunkard in the Bush is carried by a language that rebels against the conventions of the English language. Indeed, Amos Tutuola was the son of a peasant. Born in 1920, he had a basic education because, very young, he had to start working when his father died in order to help the family survive. He did all sorts of odd jobs, from blacksmith to night watchman and storekeeper at Nigerian radio. Self-taught, it was when he was a simple orderly in the colonial administration that he started writing his book. He wrote it as he spoke, that is, in a mixture of school English and Yoruba syntax. Upon its publication, the book was a great success in British literary circles, which even granted it the qualification of a work “ authentically african ». Six other novels in the same vein will follow.
The Drunkard in the Bush will be published in France by the prestigious Gallimard editions from 1953, one year after its publication in English. It is the writer Raymond Queneau, recognized in the French milieu, who will ensure the translation. And yet, this novel-tale, or romantic tale, had many faults: lengths, digressions, repetitions, lack of transitions, redundancies, cumulative dimension of the story. But, apparently, that’s what also made its charm !
In reality, the fact that Raymond Queneau chose this first African novel is no coincidence. Just as Picasso was fascinated by traditional African art for its symbolism and its emotional power, to the point of operating a radical reversal in his way of painting, Queneau saw in Tutuola a writing that does not lie. And that corresponded to his own quest.
Getting closer to the spoken language
In 1924, he had joined the French surrealist movement before breaking away from it six years later to embark on research on the “ literary madmen “, marginal authors often self-publishing and mainly dealing with unconventional subjects. He will also make a novel out of it, The Children of Limon (Gallimard, 1938). During his literary career, he even went so far as to take an interest in “ neo-french because he thought that literary language had moved too far from spoken language and that a style had to be found that could bring them closer together.
In fact, writing Tutuola was something of an encounter that Queneau could not help but respond to. It was what he was looking for himself as an avant-garde writer. After some time The Drunkard in the Bushhe will publish Zazie in the subway (Gallimard, 1959), an urban jungle also populated by unusual beings.
If this literary adventure appeals to me, it is because translation plays a particularly important role for me. In my daily life, I constantly switch from French to English and from English to French. Since my father never taught me his language (Agni, from the Akan group), I don’t have any others. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I got into visual art. To speak a third language made of colors, signs and shapes.
When I think of Amos Tutuola, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré (1923-2014) also comes to mind, an Ivorian artist who was inspired by Bété mythology (western people) to make his countless little drawings. These represent, for example, “ A genius Guié, Guié, Guié, covered with eyes », « The vision of a masked yellow sun », « The Order of Great Truths, Plants and Earth », « A sublime dancer of red beauty », « A hand holding humanity », « A rainbow-colored canoe with a man’s head », and many other themes. He also invented the Bété alphabet, made up of 401 characters.
Inner, spiritual and celestial necessity
Bouabré was also an autodidact born in a small village under (French) colonization. In 1948, he had a vision: “ The sky has opened ; seven suns danced around a central star. » He felt invested with an inner, spiritual and celestial necessity, and he developed his style on his own, outside of Western canons. He could have passed completely unnoticed by the artistic world both in Africa and in the West if he had not been one day “ discovered “. His drawings are marvelous with sincerity and humanism. One day, I had the privilege of meeting him in his studio, in Marcory, a popular district of Abidjan. When I arrived, I found him installed in his courtyard, seated in the open air at a small table in front of several drawings.
When I think of Amos Tutuola, I also think of my stay in Korhogo, the capital of the far north of Côte d’Ivoire. I spent three years there teaching English at the Lycée Moderne. This is where I fell in love with the savannah, the red earth and the paintings of Korhogo. I used to go to the artisanal village of Fakaha, to the very place where traditional artists had created these cotton canvases, woven and then painted by hand, which amazed me the first time I saw them. seen at the National Museum of Abidjan and which have toured the world. I’m not talking about those produced today for tourists – factory-spun cotton and machine-stitched bands. No, it was about seeing the real canvases populated by fantastic animals and spirits straight out of the Senufo myths of the Poro.
These canvases have become rare because the old masters could not transmit their art by protecting it from outside influences. The Senufo cosmology is fascinating. The institution of Poro, the initiation system that takes place in a sacred grove, is shrouded in myths and ancestral beliefs. There is also a secret language, that of the initiates.
When I still saw an old painting that often had to be taken out of the family treasures, I remained silent for a long time admiring the great finesse of the line and the fantastic universe of the paintings. I would have liked to never go away. I imagined the artist of yesteryear, sitting on the ground, a pot of vegetable paint placed in front of him, drawing characters on the fabric fixed in the earth straight out of his beliefs. What a strange world he inhabited then ? Quite naturally, my first literary work was a collection of poems, Lateritein homage to the Senufo culture.
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“The Drunkard in the Bush”, a quest for the afterlife – Series