EnglishLiterature NotesM A English

Summary and critical analysis of the short story What the Tapster Saw by Ben Okri.


By: Naeem Sulehri, M.Aslam Warriach

The story revolves around the character of a tapster who is an expert in tapping the trunks of palm trees to get the wine. One day he dreams that during his work he falls from a pine tree and dies. The next morning he gets up and goes to his friend Tabasco who is a herbalist-cum-fortune teller. His friend remains busy chewing bundles of alligator pepper seeds and dousing his mouth with palm wine. The herbalist takes the tapster easy because he is much too harassed by the demands of his many wives.

When the tapster is about to leave, the herbalist draws him aside and tells him a story of a hunter who sees a strange antelope that turns into a woman. The herbalist asks the tapster to bring him three turtles and a big lobe of kola nut the following day and he then would think of his dream. Disappointed with his friend’s behavior the tapster comes home.

The next morning he collects his paraphernalia and goes to his work on his bicycle. When he rides out into the forest, he sees a signboard that reads: “Delta Oil Company: Tliix area is being drilled. Trespassers in danger.” He stares at the board but cannot comprehend anything. Further, he notices a grove of palm trees. He reaches there and climbs one of the trees. The shining rays of the sun strike his eyes, he falls down. He falls first time in thirty years of his career as a tapster.

He wakes in a dream and is surprised that he feels no pain. He finds himself light and airy. In his dream he walks for a long time then he sees another signboard that goes as: “Delta Oil Company: Trespassers will be persecuted.” He passes through many strange experiences. He sees earth mounds, gravestones, and a single palm tree. He makes a mark on the trunk of the tree that becomes a chafed wound.

He goes on walking and reaches a river. There is a borehole near the river. On the edge of the borehole, he sees three turtles one of them has Tabasco’s face. He also sees a multicolored snake there which glides into the river. When the snake enters the river, the color of the water turns transparent and luminous. Here he hears a voice that says,” Don’t turn round.”

The three turtles present there looked at the tapster and the turtle with Tabasco’s face urinates in his direction. It seems as if the turtle were enjoying this act. The tapster laughs and a heavy object hits him from behind. He turns around abruptly but finds nothing. The tapster laughs again and this time receives even a harder blow. The snake comes out of the river and while passing by the tapster spits at him. After spitting at the tapster the snake enters into the borehole. He tries to sleep but could not do it. He hears various voices talking about him as if he was not present there.

He cannot shut his eyes. He sees women going to the distant marketplaces followed by the voices which they don’t hear. Very strange things happen. Whenever he feels hungry or thirsty he is given a mess of pulped chameleons and millipedes to eat and leaking calabash of liquid green to drink. The worst of it is that a creature smelling of agapanthus comes and creeps above him, copulated with him, and leaves him the grotesque eggs.

One day he hears a voice that says:

 “Everything in your world has endless counterparts in other worlds. There is no shape, no madness, no ecstasy or revolution which does not have its shadow somewhere else. I couldn’t tell you stories that would drive you mad. You, humans, are so slow- you walk two thousand years behind yourselves.”

Just after a while, another voice says to him. “You have been dead for two days. Wake up.”  Another creature comes and stuffs his eyes with cobwebs. He sees that wars are not over yet. The hidden bombs explode and the people who thought that the war was over got killed in their self-deception. He sees the collapse of bridges that are being repaired. He sees that the mouths of the roads are lined up with human skeletons. He sees people busy in futile efforts to level the forests and drill for oil. There are witch doctors who called for driving away from the spirits from the forest. The people are also trying to prevent the rain from falling and the sun from rising. When all these efforts end in smoke, the company hires an expatriate who flies in with explosives left from the last war. The dynamite is planted around the forest area and after the explosion, the tapster sees thick green smoke everywhere. He also notices a large-scale massacre there. People are being killed and those who die have their names on the bullets.

One day the tapster goes into the borehole. He sees there the multi-colored snake sitting twisted round the capstone image. There he also sees a man who has died in a sitting position while reading a bible upside-down. Everything in the borehole is on fire but there is no smoke. He hears a noise behind him and sees the creature with a plate containing a messy substance of food. The creature indicates that he should eat. When he eats, the snake starts telling him bad jokes. The snake laughs and the tapster laughs as well but the latter is thrashed so heavily with whacks that he swoons.

After recovering he comes out of the borehole. He starts counting everything that he sees. Whenever he counts, he is awarded a severe knock. Once again he hears another voice that says: “You have been dead for three days”. The voice tells him if he wants to leave, he will be beaten out of the place. When he asks the reason, “why”? He is answered, “Because you humans only understand pain.” Ultimately after having a dialogue with the tapster the voice leaves and he sleeps.

When he wakes up, he sees the three turtles lazing against the edge of the borehole. The snake too comes out of the borehole. There happens a quarrel between the snake and the turtles over the issue of the number of moons. While fighting the snake and the turtle with Tabasco’s face roll over and fall into the borehole. After a while, the turtle with Tabasco’s face emerges but without his glasses and stethoscope. He takes his place. They break a kola nut. Tabasco the turtle lights his pipe. He motions to the tapster to come closer. He blows black ticklish smoke into the tapster’s face and says: “You have been dead for six days.” After it, the tapster starts resuming his senses and comes to the real world. In the last paragraph of the story, Tabasco tells the tapster that he has been dead for seven days. He says, “You fell from a palm tree and you have been dead for seven days. We were going to bury you in the morning. I have been trying to reach you all this time……”

Critical Analysis

The story "What the Tapster Saw” has the excess that anything is possible: A tapster’s dream, ignored by a healer, will become reality, then takes the story through surreal moments, at once magical, unbelievable but entertaining. The readers get to a point of not being able to determine what’s a dream and what’s not, but the images are aligned in such a way that the best way to interpret the story is by symbolic association. The tapster has been dead for seven days after he fell from the palm tree he had dreamed about?

There are hints about war as well in this story; large issues like the destruction caused to forests by oil companies. These stories were written in the 80s and the problems they deal with are still evident in Nigeria and other parts of Africa. The creatures in the story have gone riot: a snake spits at the tapster in disgust; three turtles mock and befriend him at the same time.

The tapster dreams that he falls from a palm tree and dies; the next day, he falls from a palm tree and, presumably blacked out, has dreams in which he hears a voice repeatedly informing him that he is dead. Because of the situation, Okri has created, it’s difficult to tell whether or not the voice is telling the truth or simply playing on the tapster’s worst fears. The uncertainty builds as "You have been dead for two days” keeps increasing until it reaches "You have been dead for six days”; meanwhile the tapster sees and hears aspects of war, and of a nightmare, and of his own past.

Sense of Ambiguity

Okri leaves a strong sense of ambiguity as to whether or not the protagonist is alive. This is painted with hysterical visions of disease and poverty, where “malarial swamps… and human skeletons” make up the cityscape which teems with rampant decay. If the death has energy, then the streets of Okri’s Lagos project multi-sensual impressions of it, from massive mounds of garbage floating along the gutters, to endless dust, to streets scattered with entrails where even the citizens cannot distinguish them, soldiers inadvertently grabbing chicken guts to use as weapons. Manifesting itself in the faux medications which send stomach worms on a growing frenzy, leaving children even more helpless and bloated, and the horrific daymares which come out to taunt both rich and poor, death is an entity that revels in suffering.

Worlds with Dreams, Yet without Hope

At other times, the protagonists take an almost Camus-like, existential indifference to their personal and social demise. Too jaded from exhaustion and disappointment in them and in the lustful and avaricious politicians who claim to love them, the men of Okri’s world fail “to see” and to reawaken to the horror around them. Apathy is like a drug, excelled by the drink in which so many males lose themselves. The women of the world, who would be strong, compassionate, and empowered, are like lights being quenched by the misery of the men who mistreat them – a tragic end for what would have been their world’s best salvation.

Evil Legacy Left by Colonialism

Though Okri clearly points to the evil legacy left by colonialism, his poignant critique of corruption and politics – fused together like demon twins – remains an over-arching theme where class division is drastic. Citizens will turn on themselves, conning their neighbors, destroying not only their brothers and sisters but the land of their ancestors. Okri’s forests are nightmarish, oozing with gaping wounds and furious spirits which provide little salvation for those who always end up fleeing the city, realizing that a return to their roots has been usurped by industry invading their sacred land. Even artists, once the flag-bearers of social consciousness, lose themselves in vice and wanton glory, while deceitful drug sellers twist their bizarre profession into a theatrical performance. It is inevitable where those who try and try again are eternally suppressed, like the myth of Sisyphus – only each time, the mountain grows steeper.

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