The Palm-Wine Drinkard is rightly a celebrated achievement. The narrative is so beguiling that the reader immediately finds herself in the role of the inventor, fabricating new meanings and reconciling divergent trajectories of sense in order to restore a certain kind of communion with the text.
Each reader will choose a different territory of the novel with which to hold a conversation – the character of the protagonist; the employ of myth and legend; the nature of the journey; the significance of dismemberment.
My conversation with the novel, though, always seems to begin with the question of reality.
Is this a dream, an hallucination, a schizophrenic episode, a drunken vision, a portent, or something else? How is one to accommodate this “unsurprising” dive into what is, after all, an extremely surprising other-world? Indeed, it is the ease with which the protagonist finds himself in the space of the supernatural that takes the reader by surprise. Where is the protagonist’s wonderment? Where is his sense of estrangement?
It is elsewhere! The nonchalance with which the protagonist deals with the bush of ghosts does more than make us swallow our sense of the weird; it makes us aware that the protagonist knows this place. It is a strange world, but one that clearly belongs to the everyday. The trials and tribulations faced are the result of following a path seldom traveled, not a descent into a supernatural under-world. It is as if the Yoruban tales of old have paved the way for the supernatural to become the preternatural.
For this reason, Tutuola’s novel should not be mistaken for an exercise in magic realism. It should rather be regarded as one of the earliest literary works to invoke the notion of quantum superposition – that is to say, two distinct environments that nonetheless cannot be meaningfully separated from each other. What the great stoic philosophers did with corporeal matters and incorporeal events, Tutuola does with the human world and a gallery of “unearthly” Others.
In this way, Tutuola shows that the path less-traveled opens up a vision of the world in its full splendor – the unearthly in the earthly, the quotidian in the unique.