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The Benin Documents: Tutuola’s Demons

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I entered the city on some business involving a Portuguese trader and a cloth weaver who was defaulting on payments of a loan. A child of the river, cities made me uneasy and insomniac. One night, I decided to take a walk. My hired factotum had assured me the stream was barely 2000 paces from my lodging near the market square. I had to have taken the wrong path because after walking for what felt like 5000 paces, I still had not seen the stream but instead came upon a building. It was the Holy Aruosa, the royal cathedral. It did not look quite as magnificent as it did in the sketches I had seen, but it was grand nonetheless. The Palace Courier had announced it’s closure and the massive reconstruction work that was to go on for the entire year.

Intent of having a look, I took a back door to avoid the army of royal engineers and laborers. I found myself in what had to have been an abandoned library. Light was coming in from the window but never reaching the darkness below. Books and pieces of books were stacked and strewn all over the ground. I sneezed. A glaze of mold gave the walls a soft yellow. The air was so heavy it scraped against my lungs. It stung like the smoke of hashish. And made my eyes water. Lying on a table in the far end of the room was a volume that roused my attention for reasons I have long since forgotten. It was a collection of lose vellum sheets strung together with gold ribbons and encased in leather. I cleaned off the dust to see the title. In gold letters were written Tutuola’s Enchanted Bestiary.

To tell the truth, I have refused to speak of the shapes I saw in that book until now. For many years, I denied that human reason could apprehend such forms. I had to have been hallucinating, I told  myself as I walked back to my room at the trader’s hostel. After inhaling such large amounts of century old mold, I had to have been seeing things.  Besides, wasn’t the lighting so bad? The rays of the sun stopped half way down from the high window. So they cast a blue glow so dark the room looked like a cemetery bathed in the light of a full moon. But I saw what I saw. Headless humans, cats with tentacles, mermen ragamuffins, babies with indigo tears, and a host of others. Each entry complete with taxonomic name, genus, family, etc.

Tutuola’s demons have stayed with me ever since I first saw them. Even though so little is known of him, it is believed that he wrote novels, most of which have become rare and can only be found in antiquarian books stores in far away places like London. Any serious study of Tutuola’s teratology will have to consider these novels, which I hear are monstrosities in themselves.

A.R.R.

Ughoton, 1625

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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