Friday, 9 May 2014

Book of the Month: Half Blood Blues (Esi Edugyan)

One of the reasons I follow short-lists of literary awards is that every once in a while they include authors and novels I would not otherwise have heard of, let alone read.

The 2011 Booker short-list included the second novel of the Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan. Its title was Half Blood Blues. In the week leading to the announcement of the award BBC radio 4 devoted 5-10 minutes slots to each of the short-listed novel, and the presenters briefly spoke to the authors.

I can’t remember what Esi Edugyan said in her slot, but I remember that she was (like everyone else who was shortlisted) tremendously honoured and excited to have been short-listed, and had arrived in the UK to attend the ceremony with her new-born baby.

I remember thinking that the poor lady was going to be mightily disappointed if, after all that, she did not win the award.

As it happened, Edugyan didn’t win the Booker. Julian Barnes was fourth time lucky for The Sense of an Ending, which, according to a friend of mine (who has done a course in creative writing and therefore considers himself something of an authority on the subject), was not a bold book. Barnes, he told me, his face distorted by a grimace, had played it safe and trodden the well-trodden path when he, a well-established writer, could have afforded to be bold; it was all very disappointing and demoralizing.

Anyway, back to Edugyan and Half Blood Blues. The subject of the novel interested me. It concerned treatment of blacks in Nazi Germany. The description of the novel also suggested that it was probably a part-thriller: the story of a black German musician who disappeared in Paris after it fell to the Nazis. That sounded promising.

So I decided to give the novel a go. And I am very glad that I did. Half Blood Blues is a thoroughly absorbing read.

The story is told by Sidney Griffiths, a Baltimore born Jazz musician, who, in the 1930s, was the bassist in a German Jazz band named Hot-Time Swingers. Apparently in the 1930s Jazz had become fashionable, especially in Hamburg and Berlin. Many of the black Jazz musicians who had chosen to come to Europe to escape the all-pervasive racism (the Jim Crow law was practised in many states of the USA until the 1950s) in America, were, as they say, swinging with the local German musicians. Sidney Griffiths is a member of one such Jazz group. Other members of the group include Charles—‘Chip’—Jones, Griffith’s childhood friend from Baltimore; Paul, who is Jewish; Ernst, a German who hails from a rich aristocratic family in Hamburg and, much to the disappointment of his family, chooses to fraternize with louche jazz musicians; Fritz, another German from impoverished background, who, if he had not found his vocation as a jazz musician, would probably have become Hitler’s storm-trooper. Finally, there is Hieronymus Falk, who, at 20, is the youngest of the group. Falk, who comes from Rhineland, is a mischling—a half-breed—a son of a black, African father and a white, German mother. In one of the few instances of imparting historical information the novel informs the reader that after the First World War Rhineland was controlled by France, as per the Treaty of Versailles. The French sent armies from their African colonies to ‘police’ the region; hence the existence of mischlings in the Reich.

When the novel opens we are in Paris. The year is 1940, and France is under German control. Three members of the Hot-Time Swingers—the two Americans and Hieronymus Falk—the Rhineland mischling—are eking out a shadowy existence in occupied Paris. The three of them left Germany after jazz was banned by the Nazis as ‘degenerate’ music, and the regime made the black Afro-Germans stateless. The other members of the band have either perished or have stayed back or have left the band.

Jones, Griffiths and Falk have managed to escape to Paris with the help of a woman named Deliah Brown, a white Canadian (although she also has an American passport) who is a close associate of the legendry Louis Armstrong. It is Ernest who introduced the band to Deliah and it is Ernest who arranged for the band members to escape Germany (using contacts of his influential family) after Paul was arrested in Berlin and deported to a concentration camp. During her stay in Berlin Deliah and Griffiths become lovers, but Griffiths is also disconcerted when she develops tremendous affection for Falk, known amongst the band members as ‘Kid’. What Griffiths can’t make up his mind about is whether Deliah’s affection for Falk has an amorous component. Griffith’s insecurity, which soon mutates into jealousy, forms a powerful strand in the novel. When the trio arrives in Paris, the capital of independent France—but not for long—they are introduced to Louis Armstrong. The great man is in Paris and what is more he is keen to work with them. However, Armstrong wants to see for himself whether they pass the muster. During the practice sessions Griffiths’s nerves get the better of him and he is dismayed—but not surprised—when the message arrives from Armstrong after a few weeks that he wants to work with the group minus Griffiths. Griffith’s peace of mind is further disturbed by Armstrong’s declaration that Falk, whom Griffiths has secretly come to despise, is a genius in the making. The three musicians continue to live in Deliah Brown’s flat where the atmosphere becomes increasingly taut and tense with unspoken hostility and sexual tension. Jones and Falk have sessions with Armstrong and his band, but the recording is never to Armstrong’s satisfaction. Then France declares war against Germany; Armstrong goes on a tour of the south of France; and before he can return to Paris Germany invades France. Armstrong decides (wisely) not to return to Paris and leaves for the USA. To Griffith’s inward schadenfreude Jones’s and Falk’s dream of cutting a record with Armstrong, disappears. They decide nevertheless, exhorted by Falk, to cut a record, which they label Half Blood Blues; it is their savage twist on the Nazi anthem (‘The Horst Wessel Song’). Falk, the trumpeter extraordinaire, proves to be every bit as perfectionist as Louis Armstrong during the recordings, and scratches one record after another because the piece is not to his exacting standards. In exasperation Griffiths hides one of the records before Falk can destroy it. This record survives the war and miraculously resurfaces after several years. It becomes the stuff of a legend not least because of the tragic fate of Falk. Falk is picked up in a cafĂ© by the Gestapo and is sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp where he is believed to have perished. Griffiths is the man who was with Falk at the time of Falk’s arrest by the Gestapo, although he escapes because, in addition to being very light skinned, he is just coming out of the loo when the Gestapo enter. Griffiths makes no attempt to deter the Gestapo, and Falk, in what must be considered as a gesture of great courage and sacrifice, does not let the Gestapo know that he is with another black man.

52 years after Falk’s disappearance a weeklong Falk festival is arranged in Berlin, now the capital of a unified Germany. At the start of the festival will be shown a documentary for which both Jones and Griffiths—now in their eighties and living in Baltimore for decades—have collaborated. Griffiths, the man Armstrong thought was not good enough to play in his band, has given up music, but Jones has carried on and has built up a small reputation for himself. Both are invited to the festival. Griffiths is not keen, but allows himself to be persuaded by Jones to attend. Jones also drops a bombshell on him by telling him that Falk is most probably alive and is living in Poland, apparently away from the glare of the media which is unaware that he is alive. How does Jones know this? Because he has received a letter from Falk. Jones is keen to visit Falk, and wants Griffiths to accompany him on his journey. The duo reaches Berlin. On the opening day of the festival Griffiths is sitting in the front row along with other invitees and is horrified to hear his friend (Jones) telling the camera (in the documentary) that it was Griffiths who betrayed Falk to the Gestapo. The two friends who have spent decades squabbling with each other then embark on the most significant journey of their lives—into Poland to meet Falk, if he is indeed alive as Jones thinks.

Half Blood Blues is an intense, lyrical and utterly riveting tale of friendship, betrayal and ultimately redemption. The narrative is not linear, travel as it does to and fro in time. With this kind of narrative structure there is a risk that some sections will overshadow others. It is to Edugyan’s credit that she handles different sections of the novel, set in different time frames, with great skill and aplomb. All the sections are equally absorbing and suck the reader in.

The novel is superbly paced. Whether it is the Berlin section or the Hamburg section or the Paris section—Edugyan does not allow the pace to slacken. She also very successfully evocates the places and times for the reader and—I know it is a clichĂ©—makes them alive. Half Blood Blues is a very atmospheric novel; such is the power of its narration that the reader tastes the fear of the band members as they are hiding, first in a studio in Berlin as the Storm-troopers run amok, and then in Paris when it falls to the Nazis. Throughout the length of the novel there is barely suppressed—unspoken— tension between the two protagonists—Griffiths and Falk— bursting to come out. It gives an edge to the narration and adds to the intrigue. You read on, wanting to know how the story is going to unfold. Edugyan cleverly keeps the real fate of Falk hidden from the reader till almost the end. The final resolution is slightly anti-climactic, but the novel keeps the reader engaged till the very end.

Half Blood Blues is also an oblique commentary on the status of blacks in Nazi Germany. It is not a topic that (I think) is very widely researched, primarily, I suspect, because there were only a few thousands of them (a significant proportion mixed-race) in Germany, compared with millions of Jews whom the Nazis had targeted for annihilation. It is ironical that both Griffiths and Jones are safe in Germany and France even though they are black because of their American passports (where they would be severely discriminated against because of their colour), while Falk, though German by birth and nationality, is stateless. Edugyan however does not allow the novel to be bogged down by too much historical detail. Half Blood Blues is primarily a story of friendship and betrayal between two musicians who happen to be black and playing jazz. It is not a chronicle of black suffering under the Nazi rule.

A great pleasure of reading Half Blood Blues is its language. Sidney Griffiths is a quite a narrator, with his feel for unusual metaphors, pithy observations and easy on the ears slang. While describing Louis Armstrong’s music as well as the record created by the musician (which gives the novel its title) the tone of the narration becomes almost reverent. Edugyan creates for the reader in words the full glory of the divine melodies her protagonists create. The language has a rhythm of its own which adds tremendously to the enjoyment.

The novel does strike a few unconvincing notes. The composition of the Hot-Time Swingers, with its token Jew, a good German and a not-so-good German, is a tad formulaic; and the manner in which the non-black members of the group drop out is too neat. It is also curious that both Jones and Griffiths, who would have been able to get out of Europe (as Armstrong does) when the first signs of trouble appear, choose not to do that. They stay on in Berlin even after the Nazis ban jazz, meeting clandestinely; and you wonder what is keeping them in Germany. Similarly they hang out for too long in Paris after it falls and the American consulate (in the novel) strongly advises all American citizens to get out of France if they did not have pressing business. It is a bit unconvincing. Similarly the trajectory of the life of Hieronymus Falk after he gets sent to concentration camp is left practically unexplained. (That, I suspect, is deliberate, as Edugyan probably decided that it was superfluous to the central themes of her novel.) However, the strengths of the novel more than compensate for the minor shortcomings. Half Blood Blues is a novel that stays in your mind long after you have finished reading it.