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FICTION: In war, music, love and betrayal

July 01, 2012

JAZZ music is all about passion and possibility. In her riveting second novel, Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan incorporates the captivating spirit of the genre into words, penning an insightful and exhilarating novel that is definitely worth a read.

Edugyan first garnered attention with her debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne. The Canadian author, born in a Ghanaian immigrant family, has been recognised as one of the strongest voices in a new generation of American and Black writers. This second effort shows her voice maturing. Half Blood Blues has received plenty of well-deserved accolades, including being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize.

The novel tells an alternate history of WWII, by following a group of jazz musicians, the Hot-Time Swingers, in Berlin and Paris during the war years. It is a refreshing way of talking about the war. Rather than sticking to the usual stark, bleak narratives that persist in Holocaust literature, Edugyan presents a reality that is constantly evolving and often surprising. The protagonist, Sidney Griffiths, bassist for the band, narrates the story, jumping back and forth in time, from the novel’s present (1992) to the past, i.e., the war years. On one level it is a story of resistance, with these musicians “feeding on that fury running through Paris” to make great music and survive in a hostile environment. On another, it is a story about human relationships, about envy, genius, trust, and betrayal, within one group of friends.

At the center of both narratives is Hieronymous Falk, a Black German citizen under grave threat from the current regime, a “kid” whose prodigious talent on the trumpet has him on the verge of becoming a jazz legend. As he is about to make history with his music, Falk gets scooped up by the Nazis in Paris, and eventually is accepted as dead. Still, he becomes a household name in jazz, a presence that generates myth after myth, and influences generations of new performers.

In the novel’s present, a festival in Falk’s honour is being held in Berlin a year after the Wall is torn down. Sid and Chip, both part of the band, are invited to participate. The event itself raises troubled memories for Sid, the sole witness to Falk’s arrest, who feels responsible for his fate in some way and recognises that going back to Berlin means facing up to those memories. As if this was not enough, Chip drops a bombshell the night they have to leave: he believes that Hiero is still alive and living in Poland, and wants Sid to accompany him there. Sid does not really believe Chip, but the possibility begins to haunt him, and he lapses more and more into memory, telling us what happened to Hiero. We plunge into the story, in which the musicians are always on the move, getting close to the big names in music, including Louis Armstrong, and grappling with tortured relationships. Sid is driven to distraction because he is jealous of Hiero’s talent, and is threatened by the connection he feels the latter has with his love-interest, Delilah Brown.

Though at the sidelines of the action but always the center of the plot, Falk exudes a quiet, magnetic energy: “he was so majestically bony and so damn grave that with his look of a starving child, it felt well nigh impossible to deny him anything”, says Sid. In fact, all of Edugyan’s characters grow fuller and more complex as the narrative develops, and as we learn more about them, we must constantly realign our opinions and sympathies.

Chip, at first, coming off as crass, manipulative, and irresponsible, shows bravery and honour as well as an amazing sense of humour. Sid’s own actions and motivations, secrets that he has been keeping perhaps even from himself, are revealed bit by bit. Coming off initially as innocent and trustworthy, he reveals a core of jealousy and deceitfulness that makes it impossible to judge him.

The truly stunning thing about this novel is the voice. Edugyan dexterously incorporates the rhythms and ethos of jazz music into the protagonist’s voice, a mixture of Baltimore slang, jazz slang, and Hochdeutsch. The result is sensual, melodious and thrilling. The chaos of the war is made real through the liberal use of analogies and details, like knocked-out “teeth glowing like opals on the black cobblestones” or the “sky flash[ing] like a camera”. The images, violent and yet glamourised, give the whole novel a sense of poignant, twisted beauty. The dialogue is well-executed, too, oozing humour and warmth that lights up even the darkest situations — Chip, especially, has a joke for every occasion. At one point, the musicians take shelter inside a hollowed wall from Nazi inspectors, and absurdly, find themselves sharing a room with a cat which Chip immediately names “Dame Delilah the Second” after their new agent and Sid’s new obsession. The voice, expertly handled and never seeming unnatural, makes the characters and themes come alive, and pulls the reader into the world of jazz — into all its glamour, its glory, and its pain.

If the novel has been critiqued, it has been called unrealistic; to imagine this kind of passion and freedom existing in the bleakness of the Nazi era is a feat above some imaginations. However, bending our perceptions of history to allow for Edugyan’s interpretation is a worthwhile exercise. If anything, the novel shows that art can transcend reality to offer something refreshing and tantalising. Edugyan’s world is at once gritty, frightening, and thoroughly compelling, her talent worthy of note.

Half Blood Blues (NOVEL) By Esi Edugyan Serpent’s Tail, London ISBN 9781846687761 352pp. £10.99