Victoria-based writer Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues was long listed for the Man Booker Prize and was the winner of the prestigious 2011 Giller Prize. This is a book that makes me grateful for writers like Esi who bring to light stories you didn’t even know existed. History has a way of creating large brush strokes of remembrance, leaving everything else to the dustbin of history.
In Half-Blood Blues she focuses her attention on the plight of mixed race Germans during the rise of Nazi power. Hieronymous Falk is an exquisitely talented mixed-race trumpeter born and raised in Germany who escapes with his fellow black american musicians Chip and Sidney to Paris when it’s clear that they are no longer safe in an increasingly ‘ethnically pure’ Germany.
While in Paris they meet Louis Armstrong and soon return to doing what they do best – making great music. It’s not long, however, that the spectre of a German occupation of Paris looms and they are once again rendered ‘stateless’ and unsafe. It is while they’re waiting for their exit visas to return to America that Hiero disappears. Sid watches from behind a closed door as his friend is taken into custody by the ‘boots’ and is never heard from again.
The book flashes back and forth between the present where both Chip and Sidney return to Europe as elderly men to take part in the launch of a film on the incredible jazz musician – their old friend Hieronymous Falk.
It’s clear as the story unfolds from the present to the past that the relationships between the men were fraught with personal and professional jealousies and betrayal. As Sid and Chip journey back to Germany to celebrate their old lost friend – Sid is forced to confront his own demons and duplicity.
What did I like about this book? Well I liked the exploration of what it means to be ‘stateless’ which these men are. Sid and Chip left America for Europe to enjoy greater cultural freedom and acceptance – only to have the spectre of the world’s ultimate white crazy man rise to power and Hiero, as a black German national, belongs nowhere. In Half-Blood Blues art is your heart, it’s your country.When nothing else sustains you, it will.
There is also a beautiful scene captured when the Germans are marching in Paris. Knowing that there is nothing to hope for, the young men find a cellar and make music. Because there is nothing else and creating beauty and living in that single moment is the only thing left that matters. I loved that moment.
I also thought the scenes in the book that dealt with the early days of the German occupation were well done. There’s a haunting scene where Chip and Sid are wandering through a government building when they realize it has been abandoned except for one man. It sent chills down my spine.
What I didn’t like about the book was the main character Sid. I found him wooden, uninteresting and frequently irritating. The person I was most interested in, Hiero, was written instead as a bit character – the character around which everything revolved but around whom we know very little.
A lot of reviewers also made mention of Edugyan’s ‘voice’ – the vernacular used by the characters. A friend of mine who recommended this book also loved Londonstani which I didn’t like either. There was something about it that didn’t quite ring true or seemed to somehow get in the way. I know a lot of people loved this aspect of the book but it didn’t really work for me.
All in all though, I found this a worthwhile read. I have a soft spot for books that deal with this time period and this one certainly does it justice.