Thomas Allen, 2011
paperback, 309 pages
Review by: Kerry Riley
It’s an ancient tale of ambition, jealousy, and perhaps revenge, played out against the turbulent darkness that was western Europe in the early days of World War II. It was a time of extremes when even blood and family loyalties were stretched and broken, and when the strength of relationships often spelled the difference between life and death. The consequences of decisions made in those chaotic days have haunted a generation, and Sid Griffiths, the aging ex-journeyman jazz musician and central character in Esi Edugyan’s latest novel, is no exception.
Born in Calgary, Alberta, Esi Edugyan (pronounced Eduhjan) is thirty-three-years-old, and currently resides in Victoria, British Columbia. Her first novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, (2004) received international praise and attention. Half-Blood Blues, however, has been shortlisted for the 2011 Booker, the Giller, and just this past Tuesday, the Governor General’s Literary Award, and has solidified her position as an important new voice in Canadian literature.
Sid is a fair-skinned, mixed-race, retired medical transcriber, living in Baltimore. A widowed octegenarian, he, in what seems a different lifetime, was once a member of the jazz sextet known as the Hot Time Swingers. The band played together in Europe, and particularly in Berlin, in the 30’s, a time when many black American jazz musicians crossed the Atlantic to seek work away from the racist atmosphere at home.
It’s the 1990’s and Sid is quietly living out his final years, when, as he himself expresses it, “the past came to collect what [I] owe.” The past arrives in the form of a documentary film celebrating the life another band mate, trumpeter Hieronymus Falk. Chip Jones (fellow Hot Time Swinger and a friend since childhood) has pestered Sid into agreeing to attend the opening gala in Berlin.
The Falk story was extraordinary and tragic. A mixed-race German citizen, born of a white mother and Senegalese father, his situation became exponentially complicated with the rise of the Nazis in Germany. Labeled a “Rhineland bastard,” his parentage was viewed by the authorities as a “cultural stain,” his intensely dark skin rendering the protective status of his German citizenship tenuous. These same authorities took a dim view of jazz in general, and, in 1933, its performance was banned by Goebbels. As a result of the continually deteriorating circumstances, the doubly damned Falk and the rest of the Swingers, like many other jazz musicians caught up in the chaos, were forced to make a run for Paris in the early days of the war. All of this was occurring just as Falk stood on the brink of a glittering and brilliant career. Anointed heir to Louis Armstrong by old Sachmo himself, the world was about to recognize his genius. Unfortunately for the band, the Germans invaded Paris soon after their own arrival. Light-skinned enough to pass for white, and an American, Sid is relatively safe compared to the very visible and now stateless Hiero, and in the end, did make it safely back home. Falk, along with two other band members, was detained by the authorities, and disappeared, his potential unrealized. His reputation had enjoyed a renaissance, however, as a result of the discovery of a recording made just prior to his arrest, a now legendary session on which Sid and Chip had also played. Remastered and released with huge distribution, this recording elevated Falk’s reputation to near-mythic status. Sid, however, did not pursue his musical career after returning to the States.
The framing circumstances of the narrative are riveting enough, but embedded within is a second harrowing tale of jealousy, envy, time and regret. At first, Sid’s resistance to the idea of attending the gala seems to be the result of old age and an irascible nature, but as he and Chip bicker their way across the Atlantic, once again, and Sid begins to sift through his memories, it becomes clear that his history with the band, and his role in Falk’s fate is guarded psychological territory for him. The revelation by Chip that Falk may in fact be alive, and living in Poland, far from being a cause for celebration, provokes only denial and more resistance in Sid. He makes repeated, ominous references to a sense of malaise, “the sense that something wasn’t right in [him,] something bad was coming.” His premonitions prove correct when ,at the gala, as result of what his old friend insists was dishonest editing on the part of the documentary film maker, Sid is confronted with Chip’s allegation that he “hand[ed] Hiero over to the Boots, to the Gestapo, like that…” and that that “it was a crime for which [he] ain’t never been held to account.” However long in coming, it seems the time for Sid’s accounting has arrived and the crisis forces him to re-examine his role in Hieronymus Falk’s sad story.
As the story unfolds, it seems a betrayal did in fact occur, but not the way Chip described nor for what would seem to be the obvious reasons. Undoubtedly, as Sid freely admits, there was a problem over a woman. Delilah Brown, a light-skinned, mixed-blood jazz singer, originally from Montreal, arrived in Berlin as an emissary of the mighty Louis Armstrong with a summons for the band, and in particular, for Falk, to come to Paris and record with Armstrong. Although reports of her allure vary with the reporter, Sid is smitten. For her part, Delilah shows interest in both Sid and Hiero, but of entirely different kinds — maternal on the part of the frail and child-like Falk, and romantic in the case of Sid. It’s a distinction that everyone but Sid, it seems, can easily make. It didn’t help that Delilah (and everyone else who heard him) was frank in her assessment of Falk as a genius, set apart from the rest of the musicians, and that after a disastrous audition, Armstrong politely excluded Sid from the upcoming recording while respecting Hiero as an equal. His judgement in these matters clouded by his emotions, Sid is viciously jealous of Hiero. It is clear to the reader that his interpretation of various incidents are irrationally warped, and a furious resentment defines his relationship with the younger musician. Sid himself, even decades later, remembers wondering,
Did that scrawny Kraut bastard mean to take everything from me — the band, Armstrong, the recording, even Delilah? Ain’t he like to leave me no scraps? Is that what genius does — entitles a gate to claim whatever pieces of others’ lives he wants?
Was it enough to fuel a life and death betrayal of friendship, racial, and professional loyalties? It’s such an old story that “yes” seems the obvious answer. However, in Sid’s version of events, as his relationship with Delilah ran its course, his view of Hiero normalized, all of which occurred before Falk’s detention. The details of the arrest were nuanced and complicated, and although Sid’s actions fell well short of heroic, the claim that he handed Hiero over to the Germans to deal with a romantic rival seems unfounded. Music, it turns out, was the great unrequited love of Sid’s life, and a chance at greatness (even if just by association) was the prize which goaded him to claim a piece of Hiero’s life, although, again, not in the manner portrayed in the documentary.
Half-Blood Blues is, first and foremost, the straightforward telling of a timelessly fascinating story of jealousy and betrayal, judiciously set against a turbulent backdrop. Along the way, human motivation and the things that move us most deeply – – friendship, love, loyalty, validation, and, as Sid would put it, the terror of “learn[ing] what you ain’t,” are explored. Always, it is carried buoyantly along by Edugyan’s way with the language, a point many other commentators have made. Sid, Chip, Hiero and the rest of the band banter,bicker, tease and scold in an entirely believable and rhythmic patois all their own, the endless sexual references, both frank and insinuating, that characterize their male conversation deftly caught on the page by the author. No expert in these matters, I can make no comment about the real-world authenticity of their speech, but I can say that within the story itself, it is entirely consistent and authentic.
Perhaps not so much commented on is Edugyan’s skill in rendering images replete with sensory detail. This description of a late-morning awakening, still haunted by the previous night’s drinking binge, economically captures the atmosphere of the band’s existence in their last days in Berlin:
See, we lay exhausted in the flat, sheets nailed over the windows. The sunrise so fierce it seeped through the gaps, dropped like cloth on our skin. Couple hours before, we was playing in some back-alley studio, trying to cut a record. A grim little room more like a closet of ghosts than any joint for music, the cracked heaters lisping steam, empty bottles rolling all over the warped floor.
Later, Sid evokes the surreal atmosphere of Berlin, just prior to their escape to Paris, on “that night when all the glass on our street shattered.”
I remember the crowd been real quiet. Firelight was shining on the wet streets, the hose water running into the drains. Here and there, I seen teeth glowing like opals on the black cobblestones.
The lisping steam, the glowing opalescent teeth — it is these sense- specific details that give the passages their power.
Despite almost universal praise, the book is not completely beyond criticism. At times (admittedly few and far between) the narrative slows, weighed down, now and then, with excessive reportage and real-time drag. Some details and incidents could be safely omitted with no damage to the reader’s grasp of the story, and some advantage in pacing. As well, the final reunion of Hiero and Sid, while indisputably interesting and ironic, falls somewhat short of the intensity which preceded it.
In the longer view, Half-Blood Blues is an examination of the contrast and conflict between “history” and personal truth. According to the documentary the final recording by Falk was a deliberate, heroic act of resistance– a brilliantly subversive and sly musical reworking of the “Horst Wessell,” (a farcical anthem promoted by the fascists) created at great personal risk by Hiero and his bandmates, one of whom later gave him up to the Nazis for darkly personal reasons. The truth, as the reader comes to see, is less easily grasped, more dilute, entangled and elusive.
With Half-Blood Blues Edugyan has inarguably carved out an exciting new space on the Canlit stage. Nominated for three major writing awards this season — the Booker, the Giller and the Governor General’s — the book has the potential to score a literary hat trick. We’ll be watching with great anticipation as the first results (for the Booker) are announced on Tuesday, October 18. Stay tuned for updates!
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