September 18, 2011 by markstani
Esi Edugyan’s Booker-shortlisted ‘Half Blood Blues’ (pub. Serpent’s Tail) is a convincing and compelling tale of friendship and betrayal spanning half a century. It tracks two men from Berlin’s pre-War jazz boom to the fall of Paris and ultimately to present-day Poland, where, as octogenarians, they set about discovering the truth behind the disappearance of their former band-mate.
It is ambitious in scope but Edugyan is clearly undaunted as she brilliantly unravels the legend of Hieronymous Falk, a precocious young trumpeter whose fate is unknown since he quit his hideout and headed to a café for milk one night in occupied Paris in 1940, and was never seen again. Falk was German, twenty years old, and black.
Fifty years later Falk’s former colleagues – Sid, the narrator for whom time has not healed a guilty conscience, and the brash, outspoken Chip – are persuaded to revisit Berlin as star guests at a festival dedicated to Falk and his music. There, shocking secrets begin to emerge about their past, forcing Sid and Chip to re-evaluate their friendship.
Told in Edugyan’s breezy, colloquial prose which seldom blows a false note, this is ostensibly the story of Sid’s life, from the earliest days when he and a young teenaged Chip had their first experience of an underground jazz club in their home city of Baltimore.
I was in love. Pure and simple. This place, with its stink of sweat and medicine and perfume; these folks, all gussied up never mind the weather – this, this was the life for me. Forget Sunday school and girls in white frocks. Forget stealing from corner stores. This was it, these dames swaying their hips in shimmering dresses, these chaps drinking gutbucket hooch. The gorgeous speakeasy slang. I’d found what my life was meant for.
They are lured to Berlin’s swinging jazz scene but the illusion dosen’t last long. Escaping the city after a violent incident which puts their safety at risk, they flee to Paris only to find the Nazis fast approaching, and black jazz music not especially high on their agenda.
Hiero and me threaded through Montmartre’s grey streets not talking. Once the home of jazz so fresh it wouldn’t take no for an answer, the clubs had all gone Boot now. Nearly overnight the cafes filled with well-fed broads in torn stockings crooning awful songs to the Gestapo. We took the side roads to avoid these joints, noise bleeding from them even at this hour.
Edugyan’s plot zips along in spite of its various strands, the apparent inevitability of Falk’s fate never a burden, and holding back a couple of joltingly surprising plot twists.
Edugyan’s novel shines a light on one of the conflict’s forgotten groups, black Germans – or the ‘Black Shame’, despised by Hitler for their historical descendency from soldiers of the French Colonies who were sent by France to occupy the Rhineland as part of the peace treaty of the First World War.
‘Broke Heart Blues’ is arguably the most accomplished and ambitious novel on the Booker Prize shortlist, and would make a fine winner. It has also been longlisted for Canada’s Giller Prize. Whatever happens in the months ahead, Edugyan is clearly here to stay.