Review: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by Amos Tutuola

This is a book that you’re either going to love or loathe, because it is absolutely crazy. C-R-A-Z-Y. Crazy.

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was written by Amos Tutuola, a 20th-century Nigerian author. Tutuola was very briefly educated under the British system (Nigeria then being a colony) but led a largely unremarkable life until, at the age of twenty-six, he wrote his first novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, in the space of a few days. It was published some decades later and followed quickly by My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

The guy who wrote the forward to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts comments that Tutuola’s writing is “original and highly imaginative … a beginning of a new type of Afro-English literature … distinct from the correct but rather stiff essays that some more highly educated Africans produce.” Er, yes. If by “a new type of Afro-English literature” we mean that Tutola’s writing is completely batty, I agree completely. And while I’m not really in a position to judge his influence or importance in the wider literary scope, I can tell you that My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is a great read.

Consider, if you will, the chapter titles alone:

  1. The Meaning of “Bad” and “Good”
  2. In the Bush of Ghosts
  3. The Smelling-Ghost
  4. My Life in the 7th Town of Ghosts
  5. My Life with Cows
  6. A Cola Saved Me
  7. At a Ghost Mother’s Birthday Function
  8. My First Wedding Day in the Bush of Ghosts
  9. On my Way to the 9th Town of Ghosts
  10. River-Ghosts. Gala-day under the River.

Those are the first ten; there are about thirty in all, each more wacky than the last. And, I ask you, how can we not be charmed by the above? “My Life with Cows” — !

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts tells the story of a young Yoruba boy who, while escaping from a slave raid, finds himself in the bush, where the ghosts are.  He then spends the rest of the novel wandering more-or-less aimlessly through the Bush, while crazy things happen. He marries a ghostess. He’s transformed into a cow. He’s kept in a jar and worshipped. He sees a television-handed ghostess. He meets his dead cousin, who has set up a Methodist church and school in a ghost town. He runs from a “flash-eyed mother” who is covered with millions of baby heads. I can’t even explain it. You’ll just have to find it and read it for yourself.

Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter:

In those days of unknown year, because I was too young to keep the number of the year in my mind till this time, so there were many kinds of African wars and some of them are as follows: general wars, tribal wars, burglary wars and the slave wars which were very common in every town and village and particularly in famous markets and on main roads of big towns at any time in the day or night. These slave-wars were causing dead luck to both old and young of those days, because if one is captured he or she would be sold into slavery for foreigners who would carry him or her to unknown destinations to be killed for the buyer’s god or to be working for him.

But as my mother was a petty trader who was going here and there, so one morning she went to a market which was about three miles away from our town, she left two slices of cooked yam for us (my brother and myself) as she was usually doing. When it was twelve o’clock p.m. cocks began to crow continuously, then my brother and myself entered into our mother’s room in which she kept the two sliced or cut yams safely for us, so that it might not be poisoned by the two wives who hated us, then my brother took one of the yams and I took the other one and began to eat it at the same time. But as we were eating the yam inside out mother’s room, these two wives who hated us heard information before us that the war was nearly breaking into the town, so both of them and their daughters ran away from the town without informing us or taking us along with themselves and all of them knew already that our mother was out of the town.

Even as we were very young to know the meaning of “bad” and “good” both of us were dancing to the noises of the enemies’ guns which were reverberating into the room in which we were eating the yam as the big trees and many hills with deep holes on them entirely surrounded the town and they changed the fearful noises of the enemies’ guns to a lofty one for us, and we were dancing for these lofty noises of the enemies’ guns. (pp 18-19)

So! My friends, this is wacky. It is what most of us would probably call ungrammatical, but there’s a certain rhythm to it as well. I found that it took me about the first chapter to get into the prose — at first I spent too much time noticing errors and trying to figure out what was going on — but when I was able to relax into the story I was swept away and it was all very enjoyable. Albeit nuts.

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