Serpent's Tail, £10.99, 343pp, £9.89 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
The end of the jazz age in Nazi Germany
Friday 09 September 2011
Half Blood Blues begins in Paris, in 1940, to which the remaining members of a German Jazz band have fled, only to be followed by the Gestapo and the terror of Nazi occupation. The band, Hot Time Swingers – a part Afro-German, part Jewish, part African American ensemble –were once among Berlin's multicultural avant garde. Now they are "mongrels" and "mischlings", trapped in Europe with incriminating racial identities, whose fates illuminate the forgotten histories of black and mixed race immigrants in Nazi Germany.
Esi Edugyan - whose mature, moving second novel was very deservedly shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this week - comes at her story sideways. The narrative intrigue revolves around Hieronymous (Hiero) Falk, a shy young bandmember of African-German descent, raised in the Rhineland. A supremely gifted trumpet player, he becomes the stuff of jazz legend before he is captured at the age of 19 and sent to Sachsenhausen. Yet he does not narrator his own tale. We are given a half-story of Hiero's life by Sidney Griffiths, a jealous bassist and narrator whose central betrayal leads to the capture and disappearance of the trumpeter.
Sidney and Hiero represent the varying status of 'blacks' in Nazi Germany: Sidney, a mixed-race American left Baltimore for liberal Europe to escape the racial apartheid of the pre-civil rights era, along with his childhood friend and drummer, Chip Jones. As American nationals, they are relatively safe in Nazi Germany. Hiero, by contrast, is a Rhinelandbastard (among those fathered by Africans serving as French colonial troops in the Rhineland after World War One), who is deemed to be "stateless". Jazz music becomes a radical site of protest and liberation for them. In Paris, they meet with Louis Armstrong, and decide to recast the "Horst Wessel Lied" - the Nazi Party anthem - as a form of musical resistence.
Hiero, as protagonist, is an elusive one, kept at a distance from the reader. His past is full of gaps and mysteries never explained. He claims to hail from African royalty, though we are told he was adopted. He is mistaken for an absconding Senegelese soldier in Paris and badly beaten. His status is changing, forever in decline, and he becomes a ghostly symbol of Afro-Germany. His full life story is fastidiously withheld by Edugyan, as if to emphasise the holes left by war and by memory. Instead she intricately unpicks the tensions between her characters, and their relationship to the different kinds of blackness defined by the Nazi state.
Half Blood Blues shines with knowledge, emotional insight, and historical revisionism, yet it never becomes over-burdened by its research. The novel is truly extraordinary in its evocation of time and place, its shimmering jazz vernacular, its pitch-perfect male banter and its period slang. Edugyan never stumbles with her storytelling, not over one sentence. The few weaknesses in the plot, such as they are, simply don't matter.
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