In Esi Edugyan’s novel Half Blood Blues, we are in a territory scarcely covered in fiction, so overwhelmed is the genre already with Holocaust Literature. But it is the same ground – merely a different racial texture. Half Blood Blues swings, if that is not too grotesque a pun, between the 1990s and the 1930s and ‘40s. It is the story of a jazz band that got caught between the ban on ‘degenerate’ music after the rise of Hitler, the housepainter, and the racial complexities of its make-up.
We have Charles C Jones (Chips), a drummer, African-American; Sidney Griffiths, double bass, also African American but a quadroon so pale-skinned he can pass for white; there is also Paul Butterstein, piano, German Jew; Fritz Bayer, saxophone, German; Ernst von Haselberg, clarinet, German aristocracy; and Hieronymus Falk, trumpet, mischling Afro-German which is probably the worst combination in a community striving for Aryan purity – a black German.
So we start in Paris in 1940. The Nazis, the Boots as they are called in this book, have marched into Paris and are rounding up undesirables, that is: Jews, stateless persons and anyone without papers. Hieronymus Falk, has no papers and gets rounded up; then we swing to Berlin 1992.
The legendary Hieronymus Falk is being memorialised in a documentary, and Chips and Sid are there to represent the group, being apparently the only survivors. Then we swing back, this time to Berlin 1939 and get some of the background filled in – the music is banned and the group are hanging out together, playing in the dark, so to speak, when Delilah Brown, an habitué of Louis Armstrong turns up and persuades them to go to Paris to meet The King of Jazz. After a ‘damn braid of mistakes’ some of them are on the run, some have defected to another band, and one has vanished along with Delilah.
Back in Berlin 1992, and the present day section moves on a pace.
Swing back to Paris 1939. What is left of the band has escaped from Germany to meet Louis Armstrong. They start to make a disc, it is not finished and Armstrong is in the South of France, when events catch up. After a first run through with Armstrong, Sidney has been dropped in favour of another ‘jack’ and thereby hangs the rest of the plait: for jealousy, both sexual and professional, creates a terrible situation.
Like jazz itself, the novel has a theme and then there is a textual change and the story spreads out, different threads riff, tempo changes and then it cools off, and one is back on the theme. Apart from some of the language which is hard to make out if you are not over familiar with jazz terms and Afro-American slang this is a great story. I have seen reviews which complain it is a missed opportunity, but I hardly think so. This book is full of real people – Louis Armstrong for one, but the fictional characters have a reality too, so much so that I had to check out some of the names. So what if it isn’t a book about the way jazz was regarded in Nazi Germany, or a book about the treatment of Afro-Germans, or even other degradations in pre-war Germany? It is a book about friendship and the failure of friendship to prevent awful things happening, and maybe about a betrayal.