Seventy years of books: The Palm-Wine Drinkard

November 27, 2022 Donna M Day No comments exist

The Palm-Wine Drinkard, Amos Tutuola,1952 – “A Full-Bodied Gentleman Reduced to Head” to “Investigation to the Skull Family’s House”

Welcome to Seventy years of books, where I’m blogging my way through the seventy titles originally compiled for the Big Jubilee Read. The week I’m continuing with the first book, Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard.

Cover of Amos Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard

A Full-Bodied Gentleman Reduced to Head

The curious creature is now only a skull and the lady is more desperate than ever to return home to her father. The skull lives in a hole with his family and others of his kind and is keeping the lady prisoner in that hole.

The curious creature has tied a cowrie around the neck of the lady which has rendered her mute. When she tries to escape thousands of skulls ask the lady what she wants but she is unable to answer them which increases the feeling that her plight is desperate.

The repetition of “skull” also creates an eerie feeling of unnatural animation and horror.

The Father of Gods should find out whereabouts the Daughter of the Head of the Town was

The Palm-Wine Drinkard is very keen to find the Head of the Town’s Daughter, because it would mean being reunited with his Palm-Wine Tapster, and returning to this past state is incredibly exciting for him.

The Head of the Town also wants to return to his past state with his daughter, so both men are motivated by the thought of regaining what they have lost.

Unlike the lady, when the Palm-Wine Drinkard sees the complete gentleman in the market, he knows him to be a curious and terrible creature on sight. He started his day with forty kegs of palm wine, so maybe having such a breakfast increases your perception, or he doesn’t actually see the gentleman at all, and is passed out drunk and dreaming about skull creatures…

A table with a red velvet cloth holding a glass of red wine, being filled, a pile of old books on top of which is a skull

“The Lady was not to be blamed for following the Skull as a Complete Gentleman”

The Palm-Wine Drinkard is stunned by the complete gentleman’s beauty and even feels envious, even though he knows he is a curious and terrible creature. Reflecting on this he feels grateful that he is not a skull and the juxtaposition of these two concepts create a nice sense of conflict.

Like the lady, the Palm-Wine Drinkard follows the complete gentleman as he leaves the market, ostensibly to find out where he is living, though there is a sense that he is as mesmerised as she was when she followed him home.

“Investigation to the Skull Family’s House”

The Palm-Wine Drinkard refers to the skull’s home as both “hole” and “house” which creates a nice sense of how perspective affects your view of what home is.

Unlike the lady, the Palm-Wine Drinkard is able to follow the skull undetected as he is able to transform himself into a lizard. He is therefore able to witness the lady being kept under guard, sitting on a bullfrog. I love this image of a frog being used as a throne for the lady with a cowrie around her neck, and think it’s a really nice reflection on tales such as Princess and the Frog, particularly with the Palm-Wine Drinkard, her hopeful rescuer, being in lizard form so close by. Red haired lady in a pink dress smiling wistfully at a frog wearing a crown

Between skulls and lizards and frogs, this lady’s adventures are far from over, and the Palm-Wine Drinkard will have a lot of work to do to recover her before he can discover the location of his beloved Tapster.

This week in 1952

Following the death of Israel’s first President, Chaim Weizmann on 9 November, the Israeli Embassy wrote to Albert Einstein on 17 November offering him the presidential role. He turned them down saying that he was not qualified for the job, was too inexperienced, had insufficient people skills and, at the age of 73, was too old to do it.

On 14 November, the first top twelve singles chart was published in New Musical Express (NME) based on Percy Dickins phoning around twenty shops who had agreed to report sales figures and collating each of their top ten selling singles that week. The chart proved to be a successful feature, with the top twenty format being reported from 1 October 1954.

On 20 November Christine Jorgensen became the first transgender American woman known to have gender affirmation surgery. She later wrote that her transition had transformed her from a shy and miserable person to one “in marvelous spirits”.

Christine Jorgensen in 1954
Christine Jorgensen in 1954

On 25 November, the world’s longest running play, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, premiered at London’s Ambassador Theatre. The play didn’t however start life in London, with its world premiere being on 6 October at Theatre Royal, Nottingham. Audiences are still asked by the cast not to reveal the twist at the end. Another playwright you might have heard of, William Shakespeare, has no such insurance with his plays which have been around for even longer. Everyone knows the end of Romeo and Juliet, if you don’t know the end of Macbeth, it doesn’t take long to see where it’s going, and literally no one cares how Julius Caesar ends. It’s pretty much all downhill after Et tu, Brute? 

On 26 November Helen Frankenthaler used her celebrated soak-stain technique for the first time to create Mountains and Sea. Her method involved diluting oil paint with turps and dropping this onto an unprimed canvas lying flat on the floor to create stains of colour surrounded by auras.

1952 song of the week: Why  Don’t You Believe Me? Joni James

This is a lovely example of a 1950s heartache ballad, where one half of a couple is declaring their love to mistrusting ears. Full of I do love you and I haven’t done anything wrong and I don’t know why you don’t believe me sentiments, with a big band background, this is a nice love song which is powerful enough not to feel over-sentimental or melancholy. This was number one for four weeks and James also recorded the first version of the song from last time, You Belong to Me, but Jo Stafford’s version was more popular.

1952 film of the week: Singin’ in the Rain

Singin’ in the Rain is a classic musical telling the story of the move from silent movies to talkies in Hollywood. Far more innocent than things actually happened at the time, there is plenty of joyful singing and dancing while the disastrous effect of talking cinema on some actors’ careers is only hinted at.

The transformations in the films and numerous incidents of people not being what they seem allude nicely to the curious creature in The Palm-Wine Drinkard, particularly the references to Kathy “lending” Lina her voice when she is used to dub her musical debut.

Debbie Reynolds and Jean Hagen starring in Singin' in the Rain. Hagen, playing Lina, is miming singing while Reynolds provides the voice.Unfortunately for Lina, like the perfect gentleman being exposed as a frightening and curious creature, her adoring audiences find out who is the real star of the show. The images around voice and using it also point nicely towards the lady being rendered mute by the cowrie.

1952 product of the week: First automatic Don’t Walk sign

On 5 February, the first automatic “Don’t Walk” sign was installed in New York City. The signs were influenced by a growing number of pedestrian deaths and road accidents. Thinking about my trip to the Big Apple in May, I can easily believe that the roads were dangerous to walk on, as even when the signs show “Walk” traffic turning from the right can still turn onto the road, though they’re supposed to let you cross first. At least that’s what I think is supposed to happen. It’s seems extremely complicated, so I might have completely misunderstood that one!

Rest assured that if you’re from New York and you ever come across the pond to visit us in the UK, our green man signal is a definitely sign that you can cross without anyone driving along the crossing.

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