"Think about it. A bunch of German and American kids meeting up in Berlin and Paris between the wars to make all this joyful music before the Nazis kick it to pieces? And the legend survives when a lone tin box is dug out of a damn wall in a flat that once belonged to a Nazi? Man. If that ain't a ghost story, I never heard one."
This is one summary - bare as it is - of one of the two central narratives in Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, which has been nominated for the Man Booker Prize. Both narratives are narrated by Sid Griffiths, a jazz bassist and a native of Baltimore in the US who in 1927 found himself gigging in Berlin. This precis does not add "flavour to the story", observes Sid when he reflects on an insignificant detail of another summary of the same story.
Completing the rhythm section with Sid is drummer Chip Jones, also from Baltimore and a friend since childhood. They are both black, but Sid is light-skinned - he has family members who pass for white in the US - and there are times in Berlin where this is to his advantage. As war approaches in Berlin (and soon will break out), Sid and Chip meet up with various German musicians and eventually form the Hot-Time Swingers, a band now comprised of Sid and Chip, a black German trumpeter, Hieronymous Falk, a Jewish German pianist, Paul Butterstein, and two white Germans, Ernst von Haselberg on clarinet and Fritz Bayer on saxophone. The band becomes popular in Berlin, eventually gaining even the interest of Louis Armstrong all the way in Paris.
At the centre of the band and the story stands Hieronymous. A prodigy, Hiero can play: "Stupid young for what all he could do on a horn. You heard a lifetime in one brutal note." And thus Armstrong's interest in meeting the band.
But Hiero is a mischling, literally translated as "bastard", "mongrel", "half-caste" or, indeed, the "half blood" of the book's title. Born in Germany to an African dad and a German mother, Hiero is "so dark no soul ever like to guess his mama a white Rhinelander? [But] if his face wasn't of the Fatherland, just bout everything else bout him rooted him there right good".
On the eve of World War II, then, and on the run following a brawl with a group of Nazis during which Chip kills one of their attackers, Hiero, Sid and Chip make their way to Paris. Paul, it turns out, will have been captured and sent to Saschenhausen, Fritz will join a Nazi-approved band, and Ernst, from a wealthy and influential family, will remain in Germany for reasons unclear. Soon, war breaks out and, not long after, Germany invades and occupies France, which is where the story begins.
The book opens with a scene set in occupied Paris in 1940. Later we'll learn that the three have auditioned for Armstrong, but that the jazzman has fled Paris. Hiero and his ensemble nevertheless persist in trying to record a track in a rundown studio - a track that is a Nazi anthem but now deconstructed by their jazz and called Half Blood Blues. Recklessly, Hiero and Sid visit a cafe one morning. Hiero, now considered a "stateless person of Negro descent", is arrested and taken away by the Gestapo. Sid witnesses the arrest as he returns from the toilet. Sid passes Gestapo suspicion, and both he and Hiero pretend not to know each other - Hiero protecting Sid's black identity from discovery.
This is the one main narrative, central to which is Hiero's disappearance. But he will reappear, figuratively, in the other main narrative as mystery and legend. This second narrative - in structure interspersed with the filling out of a range of past stories, like Sid and Chip's childhood in Baltimore and the wartime stories of the band in Berlin and Paris - is set in the early 1990s and starts with Chip having convinced Sid to accompany him to post-wall Berlin, where a documentary on the Hot-Time Swingers will premiere. The band has reached legendary status, based in large part on the few records they've recorded and on Hiero's tragic end. Chip, who has a mean, deceptive streak to him, has a number of surprises for Sid, not least of which is the spin he provides, in an interview in the documentary, on Hiero's disappearance.
This second narrative, set many decades after the war (back in the US, Sid leads a quiet life and Chip is a successful musician) provides the opportunity to revisit past events. Many details are rehearsed and revised and the variations in the stories raise the spectres of unreliable memory, unreliable narration, personal interest and so on. As the stories vary, Sid is gradually revealed as an unreliable narrator, yet one is loathe to accept this. Could he have done something to save Hiero? Did this event really occur as Chip later tells it? What, really, was Sid's motive in letting Hiero be captured - could Sid have prevented it?
As the story shifts from time frame to time frame (effortlessly - it is never a chore keeping track of the chronology), a more complex picture of the relationships between the characters emerges. The possibility exists that, whatever happened with Hiero's capture, Sid may have been motivated by jealousy toward Hiero over Delilah Brown, a singer who visited them in Berlin, bringing word of Armstrong's interest.
Thematically, it holds much interest and the novel succeeds in portraying the complexities of black life in Nazi Germany. Yet, it is not a sociology textbook. While there is a bibliography of Edugyan's historical research, she inhabits this knowledge so fully that the effect, in the writing, is an immersion for the reader in the historical time without that history weighing down the story.
History occurs as a matter of fact and not as History.
Some of this must be due to her way with spoken language, in dialogue and narration. Sid|narrates the story as if he is speaking to the reader. Thus, even when a historical or political or sociological point is to be made, it is made in his Baltimore dialect and is never leaden. Think of Bunk or Omar in The Wire waxing philosophical or political, and Sid's rhythms jump from the page. (This is perhaps partly why the reading experience feels quick.)
But there are also swathes of dialogue and so the story progresses via the drama produced whenever two or more characters are together. This produces a well-struck balance between dialogue and narration. Given that the narration is, in Sid's mouth, a form of dialogue, the reader finds himself in the company of an eloquent storyteller. This, too, is a talent of the author's - her skill in drawing characters. Sid is real and alive, and so are the other characters, major and minor (It takes some nerve and skill to place dialogue credibly in the mouth of a historical figure such as Armstrong's.)
There is an economy of language at work in this - in the deft strokes with which characters are drawn, in the lilt of narration and dialogue, in the lightness with which the novel carries its historical context. But it is not a meagre, lean discourse - Half Blood Blues is never austere. There is a warmth to the novel, a humanness to its situations and characters.
Here is Sid describing one of the "boots" arresting Hiero: "The tall Boot done soften his voice, too. It was odder than odd: these Boots was so courteous, so upstage in their behaviour, they might've been talking bout the weather? There was even a weak apology in their gestures, like they was gentlemen at heart, and only rough times forced them to act this way." Even though, as Sid admits at the same time, this civility makes the brutality more horrific, it says something of the novel's heart that the "boots" aren't flattened into caricatures.- published October 7, 2012.