‘Don’t Pay Bad for Bad’ by Amos Tutuola

I’m ashamed that I only came to the Nigerian author Amos Tutuola a decade ago. My friend Eleanor Crook, a sculptor and ferocious reader, was surprised that I had never read or even heard of his 1946 novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard. It was acquired by T.S. Eliot and published by Faber in 1952. The following year Gallimard published the French translation by Oulipo co-founder Raymond Queneau. When I read it in English, I felt tremendously satisfied. I also found myself feeling frustrated that his work wasn’t better known beyond Nigeria’s borders. And just as Picasso took so much inspiration from artists across the African continent, I wondered how many European writers had failed to acknowledge Tutuola’s influence.

‘Don’t Pay Bad for Bad’ is – like nearly all of his short stories – a very tight number, covering a lot of time in a little space. The first three paragraphs span the harmonious childhood friendship of two girls, Dola and Babi, through to their marriage to two brothers. As their lives progress, so their relationship is tested. What happens in the second half of the story is so unexpected it makes me gasp every time I read it. I confess to feeling an evil pleasure at this point and a desire for the most gruesome ending. I won’t tell you what happens, but I will say that Tutuola’s stories push me right out of my comfort zone. I’m not even sure I like them. Yet, whenever I read one, days later I am still questioning my attitudes to life and death, to right and wrong, to peace and violence. Equally, I am aware that his characters stay with me, chatting away inside my head, for days on end. The delayed effect comes, I think, from Tutuola’s spare and acute prose and his understated approach to narrative.

From The Village Witch Doctor and Other Stories, Faber & Faber, 2014. Originally published by Faber in 1990