Tuesday 11 October 2011

'Ain't no man can outrun his fate'

Half Blood Blues
by Esi Edugyan

He was a Mischling, a half-breed, but so dark no soul ever likely to guess his mama a white Rhinelander. Hell, his skin glistened like pure oil. But he was German-born, sure. And if his face wasn't of the Fatherland, just about everything else bout him rooted him there right good....
Hieronymous Falk, known as Hiero, is an Afro-German, a result of the French occupation of the Rhineland after the First World War, where soldiers from African colonies were sent instead of Frenchmen - dubbed The Black Shame - and any children fathered by them assumed to be the result of rape or prostitution. Once the soldiers went home their offspring were a reminder of that shame, just one of the cultural stains that Nazism would attempt to whitewash from history, but given a fabulous focus in this, my favourite Booker title so far. The novel is narrated by Sid Griffiths, an Afro-American 'so light skinned folks often took me for white' who happened to be in 1930's Berlin along with Hiero and bandmate Chip Jones. As the thuggery of Hitler's brownshirts begins to make life uncomfortable Sid and the rest of the Hot Time Swingers made their escape to France only for war to be declared and for them to have to go into hiding whilst exit visas and passports were acquired. Before they could all make their escape Hiero was arrested by the Gestapo, interned in a camp from which he was eventually released only to pass away shortly after.

In the Berlin of 1992 Sid and Chip are reunited to attend the screening of a documentary about Hiero and we begin to get a sense of the buried history and bitter secrets of these two men. Chip may only stand at five foot four but with a booming voice that 'overwhelmed the air, shoved it aside like oil in a cup of water' and his status as a now world-renowned drummer he has a bullying influence over Sid, a bassist for whom it never quite happened. The sense of unease that has been with Sid since he got to Berlin achieves something of a climax at the screening itself when he hears the voice of Chip himself name him as the man responsible for the arrest of Hiero over their competition of a woman. If that isn't enough Chip also has a letter. Hiero it seems may not have have died at all and Chip wants them both to travel to Poland to visit him; a journey that will force Sid to confront all those demons from his past and the terrible secret he has carried since then and also allow him to tell us the story of what really happened in wartime Paris.

Sid provides a enjoyable, idiomatic narrative voice, filled with jazz slang, where a man is a 'gate', a woman is a 'Jane' and the word ain't makes more appearances than in an EastEnders omnibus. Crucially this voice isn't overplayed, it never feels forced, which means that it rang true to this reader anyway. It works in much the same way as the dialogue in another music heavy narrative, David Simon's TV series Treme, where love of music and the language of the black culture it emerges from are given due prominence. I cannot stress how brilliant the dialogue in this book is. The banter between the men is hilarious, witty and brilliantly observed in terms of the way creatives know how to get a rise out of their contemporaries. The characters are well drawn too. There's a giant of a man and a Jew so blond and blue-eyed he looks like the perfect Aryan. There's the cheeky and outspoken Chip, ever confident of his viewpoint no matter how misguided it might be. Hiero remains an almost silent presence throughout, not saying much unless it's with his horn, with which he can render almost anyone silent and awestruck. Sid struggles with the limits of his own talent and his recognition of what Hiero represents and in fact it isn't until quite late in the novel that accepts what the real difference is between them.

...cut him in half, he still worth three of me. It ain't fair. It ain't fair that I struggle and struggle to sound just second-rate, and that damn kid just wake up, spit through his horn, and it sing like nightingales...Geniuses ain't made, brother, they just is. And I just was not.

The theme of talent and genius is developed throughout the book and the performance of jazz music and what makes it genuine or not is made painfully clear in Hitler's Germany where a state-sanctioned jazz band is rightly regarded by our heroes as going entirely against the grain of what jazz music is all about. For the Hot Time Swingers, exiled in Paris, and with a lead trumpeter effectively rendered stateless by the colour of his skin, jazz is a form of resistance, a protest, and nowhere is this more evident than in their attempts to subvert the Nazi Party anthem into 3 minutes and 33 seconds of jazz greatness, the Half Blood Blues of the title. This idea comes from their meeting with the great Louis Armstrong himself, a meeting which again allows us to consider the attributes that make a man great.

A man ain't never seen greatness till he set eyes on the likes of Armstrong. That the truth. Those hooded lids, that blinding smile: the jack was immense, majestic. But something else too: he looked brutally human, like he known suffering on its own terms. His mouth was shocking. He done wrecked his chops from the pressure of hitting all them high notes over the years. His bottom lip hung slightly open, like a drawer of red velvets. He lift a handkerchief to his mouth, wipe off a line of spittle. I seen something in him then: a sort of devastated patience, a awful tiredness. I known that look. My mama had it all her life.

I don't want to say any more about the plot, there's plenty of it and the book is wonderfully structured in the way it alternates between the two time periods, revealing its secrets along the way. We know that Sid is journeying towards a reckoning of some kind but it doesn't make the reveal of it any less painful. Like Armstrong, these men are also brutally human, each have suffered in some way and there is something very touching about the way in which time and suffering interact. Treme worked for me because its love for music was infectious and the music itself became a way of expressing not just joy and love but anger and hatred too. Half Blood Blues shows how music can be a protest against oppression and a cry for equality, even whilst those who make it struggle to accept each other. I don't want to put the mockers on it now but if this book were to triumph on the 18th October I'd be very happy to know that more people would read this entertaining, informative and ultimately moving novel.


Annabel 11 October 2011 at 11:46  

I wasn't sure about this one, but liking vintage jazz, I was slightly curious. I would definitely like to read it now. Your review reminded me also that I have an omnibus edition of Chester Himes novels to read (A rage in Harlem etc).

Anonymous,  11 October 2011 at 12:51  

I see there is a spotify playlist now of this book ,I loved it when I read it Will something about it been a story that we maybe wouldn't think about they we re like the background of Isherwoods Berlin brought to the foreground I agree it would be a great winner of what is a poor shortlist all the best stu

William Rycroft 11 October 2011 at 16:49  

Thank you both for the comments. It's a very enjoyable read this one in what has been a not particularly enjoyable Booker year for me. I am positive that I will be able to list 6 books better than anything on the shortlist when I come to do my end of year round up. But you'll have to wait patiently for that one.....

Max Cairnduff 16 October 2011 at 15:56  

You make an extremely good case for it.

When Kevin reviewed this I was concerned by the narrative voice, which I found a bit unconvincing. Despite that I've since bought it, and I note that it's grown in his memory so that while initially he seemed very ambivalent about it he now seems to have warmed.

Annabel, Chester Himes is brilliant. I've written about his first two (and about him getting a Penguin Modern Classics release) here: http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/category/himes-chester/ - no spoilers of course. A much overlooked writer who really deserves the attention Penguin are now giving him.

Thanks for putting this back on my radar Will. Now all I have to do is find the time...

William Rycroft 17 October 2011 at 10:12  

Ah yes, time, where does it all go? Glad to have brought it back into your sights Max. I really enjoyed the narrative voice, these things are hard to pull off but I was impressed by its consistency and the way in which it didn't annoy me! Look forward to hearing your own thoughts. After you've invented a TARDIS of course.

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