Old-school African novels are filled with scenes where men look at women. Much less frequent are scenes where men are captivated by the bodies of other men.
There is one such scene in The Palmwine Drinkard.
It’s been 7 months since the Drinkard left his home. He’s spent much of that time traveling from town to town, picking up scraps of news about where his dead Tapster might be. On one of his stops, he meets a town chief who is mourning the loss of his daughter. She’s been abducted by a creature called “complete gentleman” under very strange circumstances.
A trader in the local market, beautiful beyond words, the girl was unmarried; not because of a shortage of suitors. Out of pride maybe, she had refused many offers for marriage. One day, she went to the market and never came back. A skull disguised as “a complete gentleman” had lured her with his “fake” good looks and spirited her away to his skull town, deep, deep inside the forest, past the borders of towns and villages where humans lived.
This is how things are when the Drinkard waltzes in and announces himself as “the father of all Gods,” or what we today might simply call a “Superhero,” promising to bring the girl back to her bereaved father.
Nothing exceptional about this story. Growing up as a little girl in Benin City, I and my friends would sit on the steps of our army tenement housing in the pitch blackness of a power outage, and we would tell and retell versions of this story: A beautiful and proud girl who refuses all her suitors meets her downfall when she falls in love with an evil creature disguised as a handsome trader, or prince.
In our versions of the story, the girl is never saved. She disappears, never to be seen or heard of. And the purpose of this rather morbid ending? I’m guessing to teach us how not to fall in love with creeps? Tutuola changes the script. He saves the girl from the skull but also redeems her in the eyes of the reader.
(Let’s proceed without pausing to think about why he would make such a change.)
As a prelude to his quest in search of the girl, the Drinkard decides to do some bit of investigating. He knew the “complete gentleman” would be at the marketplace, where he often visits with other creatures, also disguised as humans, to shop and sell, and so on. Here is the Drinkard’s account of the encounter:
I could not blame the lady for following the Skull as a complete gentleman to his house at a. 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. At that same time that I saw this gentleman in the market on that day, what I was doing was only to follow him about in the market. After I looked at him for so many hours, then I ran to a corner of the market and cried for a few minutes because I thought within myself why was I not created with beauty as this gentleman, but when I remembered that he was only a Skull, then I thanked God that he had created me without beauty, so I went back to him in the market, but I was still attracted by his beauty. So when the market closed for that day, and when everybody was returning to his or destination, this gentleman was returning too and I followed him to know where he was living.
The reference to bombs is, however, not arbitrary. Tutuola was most likely referring to aerial bombings. In the thick of the second world war, he trained for two years as a blacksmith for the RAF, the branch of the British military responsible for the air raids on Germany during WW II. Tutuola had to have been aware of these raids and clearly thought of the bombings as a highly sophisticated and lethal form of the modern war machine.
If a body is so beautiful that it renders such a force powerless, what would it not do to the desires of a girl?
Small wonder that the Drinkard spends hours stalking this figure all around the marketplace. The fact that he is moved to tears is something to think about. It’s easy to see how his crying feminizes him in relation to this spectacular male body. But what desire also lurks within those tears? What desire drives his attraction to this body?
The Drinkard, I should note, is not attracted to the “complete gentleman” the same way the bomber is. The bomber’s captivation is not an attraction. It is instead a form of arrest. It’s the same thing that happens to the bomb itself, an inanimate thing—“the bomb itself would not explode until this gentleman would leave that town,” explains the Drinkard. The bomber is never moved to the point of following the man everywhere. He, like the bomb, is simply arrested in his act of destruction and made powerless.
The Drinkard’s form of captivation is an attraction that makes him follow the man. This is no small difference. Earlier, he had suggested to us that “following” is a specifically feminine reaction to the creature’s beauty: “if I were a lady, no doubt I would follow him to wherever he would go.” Well, he does follow the man even though it was only through the market place. It could well be that he was simply tailing the fella the way a detective might, but no. His is very clear that the cause of the following is an attraction that despite his best efforts he is not able to control. He follows the man the same way the lady did, pulled by a force that is evidently erotic in nature. That’s why when he returns from taking a minute to cry, he is able to say: “I went back to him in the market, but I was still attracted by his beauty.”
In the end the Drinkard reins in his attraction, but only because he is able to see, with the eyes of a diviner, the true nature of the creature. He sees the bit of decaying skull that skulks within creature’s magical body. “I remembered,” he says, “that he was only a Skull.”
Something tells me that if the Drinkard had let himself go, the “complete gentleman” might have treated him way more nicely that he treated the girl. Maybe he’d have gotten himself an enchanted and enchanting boyfriend instead of a lovely wife.
Post Image: “State of the Nation” by Kudzanai Chiurai
Feature Image: Afro Inspired Collages by Sincerely Overwhelmed