Monday, August 15, 2011

*Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

Serpent's Tail, 2011
343 pp

Half Blood Blues is Esi Edugyan's second novel after The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, written in 2004.  The action in Half Blood Blues takes place in Berlin (1939-40 and again in 1992) and Paris between 1939 and 1940, just after the second world war has begun and the Nazis are set to occupy Paris, placing it firmly in the Holocaust period.  In reading about this novel prior to starting it, I thought it would probably be one of my favorites on the Booker Prize longlist because of its subject matter: jazz (to which I am wholly addicted) and more importantly, the treatment of non-Jewish minorities in the Third Reich. I was more than surprised, and to be honest, a little disappointed after finishing Half Blood Blues, because what I expected and what was actually there were two different things.

There are three storylines here, all of which blend together very well. First, In Berlin in 1939, Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones are members of a jazz group  the Hot Time Swingers. Like many African-American jazz musicians of the time, Griffiths and Jones had come to Europe to get out from under the severity of Jim Crow in the U.S., and had done well for themselves.  The jazz group had a large following there in the steamy, smoky cabaret life, largely due to a highly-talented young jazz trumpeter named Hieronymous (Hiero) Falk.  Hiero was a "Mischling," son of a white woman from the Rhineland who had been raped by an African soldier.  When Hitler retook the Rhineland, children like Hiero were labeled as "stateless," and a "cultural stain," even though they were German citizens. The Hot Time Swingers soon discovered that after the Nazis came down on jazz as "degenerate" music, it became very dangerous to play this kind of music in public:

Jazz. Here in Germany it became something worse than a virus. We was all of us damn fleas, us Negroes and Jews and low-life hoodlums, set on playing that vulgar racket, seducing sweet blond kids into corruption and sex.  It wasn't a music, it wasn't a fad. It was a plague sent out by the dread black hordes, engineered by the Jews. Us Negroes, see, we was only half to blame -- we just can't help it. Savages just got a natural feel for filthy rhythms, no self-control to speak of. But the Jews, brother, now they cooked up this jungle music on purpose. All part of their master plan to weaken Aryan youth, corrupt its janes, dilute its bloodstreams.

Going underground, the group took refuge in the Hound Club, which had been shut down by the Nazis for its "degenerate sympathies." The situation is pretty bad by the time Delilah Brown, friend of Louis Armstrong, arrives from Paris and convinces the group that they need to get out of Germany and go to France, where Armstrong was looking forward to meeting them. This begins the second storyline, when eventually Chip, Sid and Hiero make their way to Paris,  just ahead of the Nazis, "the boots," who will soon be invading France.  There they meet Louis Armstrong, who is quite taken with Hiero's amazing talent. After it becomes clear that the Nazis will soon be entering Paris,  the US government tells all non-essential Americans to get out of France and Armstrong leaves. Chip, Sid and Hiero once again go into hiding, and begin  a series of recordings, with Hiero in the lead, cutting disc after disc, constantly interrupted by Hiero's frustration over their imperfections. Sid steals one of these discs, hiding it away, and he and the others are left waiting for their exit visas.  It is at this time that tragedy befalls Hiero, and he is arrested. Flash forward to 1992, the third segment of this novel.  A documentary about the life of the hitherto unknown life and talent of Hiero, whose work has recently been rediscovered, is about to be premiered in Berlin, and Sid and Chip are about to go back after all of this time. 

There are some good moments in the novel -- the author's  descriptions of the jazz life in Berlin before the Nazis are well done, the atmosphere while the group is in hiding is believable, and the story of the escape from Germany is a bit on the exciting side.  And she is quite good at seaming the three strands of the story together to make one cohesive whole. But considering the material listed at the back of the book from which she had ample opportunity to draw together a story of black people during the Nazi period, there's really no depth in this area in the novel, nor are their stories well illustrated here or made representative of through the character of Hiero, much to my great disappointment.  A scholar alludes to the fate of both African-Americans caught in Paris and to these "stateless" people as part of the documentary, but as an historian, not as a "Mischling" himself. I thought once things got rolling I'd be seeing more of  Hiero's story both pre- and post-arrest, a more personally-driven account.  I think the author missed a great and unique opportunity here by not making Hiero more of the centerpiece of her story rather than Sid, whose story focuses more on his on-again/off-again relationship with Chip, his infatuation with Delilah, his own selfish desires, and his petty jealousies.  I'd categorize this book as a novel of missed opportunity.  Maybe one day, someone will write the book I thought this was going to be.  I'll guess I'll just have to keep waiting.


  1. Too bad it didn't go as deeply as it could -- the premise sounds marvelous!

  2. Audra: I know, huh! It's not that it was bad, but what a missed chance for the author. Oh well. I try to pick books I think I'm going to really like, but I suppose it's not always possible.


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