Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (2011) Thomas Allen Publishers (2011) 336 pp
Ah, another finalist for this year’s much-maligned Man Booker Prize. In part because of the criticism (much of which I agree with, particularly criticism about how some of the judges have responded), I really didn’t want to read Half-Blood Blues, even if it did eventually win the prize (it helps that the book still isn’t available in the United States, though it is finally slated for publication by Picador in late February 2012). But then Half-Blood Blues was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, making it mandatory reading. But I was further encouraged when the book went on to be a finalist for Canada’s Governor’s General Award and Canada’s Writers Trust Fiction Prize (that’s finalist for four prestigious prizes, folks). So, even if the Booker judges had it mostly wrong, perhaps this book was a ray of light on the list.
I say yes, a ray of light indeed. It’s not my favorite book of the year, but so far it is my favorite book of the Booker shortlist (I have only not read or attempted to read Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending, which I suspect I’ll like very much when I get to it, but who knows?). If Half-Blood Blues wins the Booker Prize tonight — in just a few hours — then I say a good and worthy book won, and we can put behind us the rest (well, most) of the issues with the Prize. I’ll try not to spoil things for the Shadow Giller by ranking it on the Giller shortlist just yet.
The premise and the well rendered voice of the narrator, Sid Griffiths, an American black octogenerian, are the book’s two main strengths. First, to the premise. In the 1930s many of America’s best black jazz musicians fled to Europe in order to escape Jim Crow laws. In Europe the jazz culture flourished, for a while. Our central characters, the narrator Sid and his childhood friend Chip Jones, are two American black men who went to Berlin where they formed an exceptional jazz band. Here, to highlight Sid’s jazzy cadence as a narrator, is Sid’s introduction to this background:
See, I was born here, in Baltimore, before the Great War. And when you’re born in Baltimore before the Great War you think of getting out. Especially if you’re poor, black and full of sky-high hopes. Sure B-more ain’t south south, sure my family was light-skinned, but if you think Jim Crow hurt only gumbo country, you blind. My pals and I was as much welcome in white diners as some Byron Meriwether would be breaking bread in Jojo’s Crab House. Things was bitter. Some of my mama’s family — two of her brothers and a schoolteacher sister — they was passing as whites down Charlottesville way. Cut us off entirely. You don’t know how I dreamed of showing up there, breaking up their parade. I ain’t so sure about it now, I suppose they was just trying to get by best they could. We could’ve passed too, said we was bohunks or something, but my pa ain’t never gone for that. Negro is what the lord made us, he always said. Don’t want to be nothing else.
Edugyan, to me, does a great job of creating this voice without overdoing it and forcing the reader to reread simply to decode what was being said about Jojo’s Crab House.
In Berlin, Sid and Chip meet up with a couple of other jazz players, one in particular, “the kid,” twenty-year old Hieronymous Falk (or Hiero), would go into history as one of the best jazz trumpeters ever. Hiero’s back story is also very interesting. His mother was German, but his father was one of the black soldiers sent by the French to occupy Germany after World War I; he’s the “half-blood” of the title (“Half-Blood Blues” is also the name of one of the groups most famous songs, which, again, has a fascinating history). These soldiers would be known as “the Black Shame, the Scourge, the Black Infamy”; it was presumed that any woman who had a child with one of the soldiers was either a prostitute or a rape victim. Hieronymous Falk is a legend (and Edugyan doesn’t hesitate to create verisimilitude by listing real jazz musicians who were inspired by this fictional character), but there’s little of him. The book opens in Paris in 1939. The group fled Berlin when the Nazis rose to power, but they didn’t get as far away as they should have. At the end of the first section, Hiero is arrested by the Gestapo, never to be heard from again (we lovers of literature know that it is not rare this story of a legendary, obviously masterful artist whose life was cut tragically short by the Nazis).
Half-Blood Blues then moves to 1992. Sid is old. As the “dependable” member of the band, he never became famous. Chip, on the other hand, has had a successful international career. Still, the most famous of all is Hiero, who allegedly died shortly after the war. Chip visits Sid at his home in Baltimore. Some filmmaker has made a documentary about their jazz band, focusing in particular on Hiero and on their last days together when they recorded “Half-Blood Blues,” their masterwork that was almost lost. The documentary will premiere in Berlin at the new “Hieronymous Falk Festival.” Sid wants Chip to attend with him. Unexpectedly, Chip also tells Sid that “the kid is alive”; living in Poland, Hiero heard about the documentary and sent Chip a letter asking him to come to Poland to visit while on his trip to Berlin. Chip wants Sid to go with him there too (though Sid soon reads the letter and realizes never does Hiero ask for him to visit).
Reluctantly, Sid says he’ll go to Berlin but not to Poland. He doesn’t really believe Hiero is alive anyway. We quickly learn there’s more to it than that. At the premiere, Sid is mortified when he watches part of the documentary where Chip is being interviewed and says this about Sid:
“A shame, the trust we all put in him.” Chip took a long deep breath, reflecting. “But he’s a lesson, really. A lesson in what jealousy’ll do to a man. To betray such a genius musician, and a kid at that, over a woman. Over the kid’s talents, and over a woman. I mean, there he stood, denying his friend, pretending he didn’t even know him, while they dragged the poor boy away. I ain’t saying he pre-arranged it. I ain’t saying that. But handing Hiero over to the Boots, to the Gestapo, like that . . .” He shook his head. “That’s mind-blowing, ain’t it? I don’t have to tell yhou what a great blow that was to the legacy of jazz. I mean, here we was on the verge of that groundbreaking recording . . . I know, I know, we still got a pretty good take, but imagine what it could’ve been. Hell. It’s a crime. It’s a crime for which Sid ain’t never been held to account.”
Love, jealousy, betrayal: the book will go back and forth in time (next to Berlin in 1938) as we trace the exciting story and find out what happened to these characters (these characters that, by this time, I already cared deeply about). I really enjoyed this book and am a bit baffled by some comments I’ve heard that it was boring. I certainly didn’t find it boring. I do have a gripe though: I felt that the pieces were set up by an expert hand who had absolute control. Sadly, when they started moving, that hand seemed to disappear, allowing the pieces to progress more predictably, as if much of the work was done in the setup. Again, that’s not to say I didn’t like how this book played out (I was attached to the characters, and even knowing what was going on didn’t prevent me from caring or being affected when things happened); I just felt like the incredible premise didn’t quite play into the later events. Still, I recommend the book — may it do well in its awards season.