Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Selected edition: Paperback
No of pages: 352
SHORTLISTED FOR THE ORANGE PRIZE FOR FICTION 2012
SHORTLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2011
Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues brings to life the jazz scene of the late 30s and early 40s in Berlin. I have been wanting to read the Orange Prize shortlisted (and Man Booker shortlisted in 2011) novel for a while, not just because of the great reviews it has received, but also out of curiosity, to see if I felt the book lived up to such acclaim.
The concept was one that I hadn’t met before: in Nazi-occupied Paris, a young, black, German trumpet player named Hieronymus Falk is arrested and disappears, leaving the jazz world mourning the loss of a talent equal to Louis Armstrong. In the 1990s, two of his former band mates (Americans from Baltimore) make their way back to Berlin for the Hieronymus Falk Festival, with protagonist Sid Griffiths reflecting on the past and the guilt and secrets that surround their time in Berlin and Paris, and the arrest of Hieronymus.
It took me a while to get into Half Blood Blues. The novel begins in Paris, 1940, when Hieronymus (or Hiero as he is called by Sid) is arrested, and I found it a bit confusing, trying to work out who the characters were, their relationships, which one was “the kid” and how they had come to be in Paris at the time. The voice of Sid Griffiths (whose name kept reminding me of the rather different Sid Vicious!) is evocative, clear and it took me a bit of time to fall into step with it. When I did though, I found the characters to be vivid and gripping, each one interesting in a different way. There is a lively dynamic between the band mates, and although at times their banter can be cruel, the care they have for each other is touchingly apparent.
In a time when many didn’t see them as people, the tender account of young black and Jewish musicians and their time together is fresh and moving. It is never so apparent as when Ernst’s father (a German aristocrat with allegiances to the emerging Nazi power), who has arranged visas for the musicians to leave Germany, talks about another former band mate who was captured by the Nazis:
[Ernst’s father] ‘Was he very talented?’
‘He was a person, Father. What does it matter?’
Ernst’s father puts talent before humanity, unable to empathise with the loss of human life of a Jewish musician. Indeed, Ernst takes Sid to meet his father as he “want[s] him to see these are real people he’s dealing with”. This seemed to me to be a main driving force behind Esi Edugyan’s writing – to highlight the human context behind the horror of the Nazi regime. Personally, I find it difficult to quantify the reach of Hitler’s horrific influence, the numbers of mortalities hard to put into perspective. The initial tragedy of Hiero’s arrest didn’t quite hit home as I hadn’t had a chance to get to know the characters yet and, as the novel went on, knowing what was to become of him, empathising with the characters and their impossible situation became a natural reaction. It was only by getting to know these individuals that I can even begin to understand the fear, cruelty, and humanity, as collectively it’s too much to handle and I feel overwhelmed, unable to process loss of human life on such a scale. The novel wasn’t an obvious tearjerker for me, although the protagonist is a survivor haunted by the past.
Sid’s voice is lyrical and rhythmic, skipping along, describing “jacks” (men) and “janes” (women); travelling along in a luxury car, “pouring like syrup along those sleek Berlin roads”; drinking the Czech liquor (‘It ain’t really Czechoslovakian,’ I said, coughing. ‘We used to call it the Cheque. Like, you drink it up now, you pay for it later.’) that sums up how the past itself creeps back up on them. You come to trust Sid’s account of things, his unique view on the world apparent as he and Chip get ready to board a bus through Poland:
“It was a damn relic. An old transport bus, bleached white with dust. It sat high on its huge military tyres, its joints rusty, its chassis pocked with dents like it been in a battlefield. Its weird Soviet hood looked insectoid, creature-like, and with its luggage doors lifted like wings I got to feeling distinctly uneasy.”
The whole image brings to mind Sid himself, who at eighty-two, has a face “like one of them worn-out wood houses ain’t been painted in decades”, taking flight back into the past and memories of the war that profoundly changed his life.
I’m not sure of my qualifications for judging a book for prizes such as the Orange Prize and the Man Booker, but I am sure that this book is enchanting, written so beautifully and with a unique voice that brings something unknown to the world of fiction. Some of the accounts of Louis Armstrong seemed a little too far-fetched for my taste but at a time when so many unbelievable things happened it brings some light into the lives of the musicians, and the harsh reality that faced so many individuals who have been forgotten in history books, identified merely by statistics.