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2 - The Time of Letters: Epistolarity and Nigerian Newsprint Cultures

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 February 2024

Stephanie Newell
Affiliation:
Yale University, Connecticut
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Summary

Here comes a letter from a man who wants to ask a question and the reply given to him.

(Nnadozie c.1962: 24)

Towards the end of Amos Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952), the first-person narrator is called upon by the chief of ‘mixed town’ to judge two complex court cases. The first involves so many complications that he adjourns the judgement for a year. Eight months pass and the chief calls on him to judge another equally impenetrable case, on which he also postpones judgement for a year. Utterly stumped by the complexity of both cases and under pressure as time passes, the narrator and his wife decide to leave mixed town and return home. But waiting for them at home are ‘more than four letters’ which have overtaken the travellers en route. In them, the narrator is begged by the people of mixed town ‘to come and judge the two cases because both were still pending or waiting’ (115). Under this epistolary pressure, as ‘pending or waiting’ time catches up with him, the narrator breaks the fourth wall of fiction and turns outward with an urgent appeal: ‘I shall be very much grateful if anyone who reads this story-book can judge one or both cases and send the judgement to me as early as possible’ (Ibid.).

While the letters from the people of mixed town arrive inside the narrative envelope of Tutuola's story, if judged by chronological standards, no correspondence, early or otherwise, is possible between the narrator and the reader as called for above. The narrator attempts to use letter-writing to transcend the limits of his story, but the reader's advice can never arrive in time. No reader's ‘now’ can synchronise with the narrator's present. The narrator's appeal for correspondence would only be feasible in a newspaper or another type of serialised genre in which a subsequent issue could carry readers’ replies: without that, ‘as early as possible’ will always be too late because of the narrator's and the reader's incommensurability.

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