[16 April 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
When one thinks of the Holocaust, one tends to think of the plight of the six million Jewish people who perished in the Nazi death camps. However, academics are apt to point out that it wasn’t just Jewish people who were affected, even though they were the group that Hitler overtly and punitively singled out. Homosexuals, people with disabilities, Soviet prisoners of war, Jehovah’s Witnesses and, as Esi Edugyan’s sophomore novel, Half-Blood Blues, notes, black people were all sent into the concentration camps.
So, with that bit of knowledge, you might be forgiven for thinking that Half-Blood Blues, essentially the story of a gifted 20-year-old black jazz musician who is captured by the Gestapo in 1940 in Paris and is never heard from again, would be a searing examination of what it might be like for someone non-Jewish to endure torture and humiliation at the hands of the Nazis. That story, though, isn’t told in Half-Blood Blues, making the novel feel like a bit of a squandered opportunity in some respects. What Half-Blood Blues ultimately is, is a tale about betrayal and a love triangle, telling much of its story in flashbacks leading up to the Second World War and the days immediately following the invasion of Poland.
Half-Blood Blues is a knotty novel with a generous heaping of plot. It opens in Paris of June 1940, where the aforementioned brilliant jazz trumpeter, Hieronymus Falk, a German black man who is the product of an interracial marriage, is captured in a café without proper paperwork and is sent away to a concentration camp. Sid Griffiths – the bassist in Falk’s jazz band, the Hot-Time Swingers, and the novel’s narrator – is the only one with Falk at the time of his capture, an event that he would go through life not speaking much about.
Flash forward to Berlin, 1992. The now octogenarian Griffiths and his drummer bandmate Chip Jones have been invited to a festival in the German city, newly liberated with the fall of the Berlin Wall, where a documentary film honouring the genius of Falk, now something of a cult hero among jazz musicians for making a record before his capture called “Half-Blood Blues” that took its melody, ironically enough, from a Nazi Party anthem, is set to unveil.
However, Jones’ motivation for attending the festival is double-edged: he has received a letter purportedly written by Falk, who is not only seemingly still alive, but has invited him to his home in Poland. And so Griffiths and Jones set off to find Falk, while remembering the events that lead up to his disappearance that occurred in both Berlin and Paris of 1939 and 1940. If that sounds dizzying, it kind of is. Readers basically are posed with the task of filling in the gaps of the temporal space-jumping story, which details the how and why Falk found himself in the hands of the Germans that fateful day in 1940.
Edugyan’s second novel is almost one that never happened. Half-Blood Blues was slated to be printed in her home country of Canada some time ago; the publisher, though, quickly folded in the face of financial woes. Another publisher, Thomas Allen, eventually picked up the novel, initially printed 3,000 copies in August last year, and the rest is, as they say, history. In Canada, as of January 2012, roughly 115,000 copies of Half-Blood Blues were in circulation which, to put that number into perspective, is astounding when you consider that it just takes 5,000 copies of a novel sold in Canada to be considered a bestseller.
What’s more, Half-Blood Blues has won all sorts of laurels and acclaim internationally in the recent awards season. It was one of two books by Canadian authors to be shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize in the UK – the other was Patrick deWitt’s remarkable Western The Sisters Brothers – and won the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize, the richest prize in Canadian letters as it comes along with a $50,000 cash award for the winning author. The book has also been nominated for Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award (it lost to deWitt’s novel), and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Half-Blood Blues has also been shortlisted for Britain’s Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction this year (along with – surprise, surprise – deWitt’s work).
Indeed, Half-Blood Blues is a richly rendered, poetic work in that its narrator tells the entire story in African-American slang (the narrator is originally from Baltimore): there’s liberal use of the double negative and certain words, such as “eat”, frequently have a vowel missing. Readers will either take that one of two ways: yes, it is stereotypical but, yes, it also gives the tone of the novel a unique sense of jazzy lyricism. The storytelling is subtly hypnotic as we get pulled into the past lives of the principle characters, and the Europe of the late ‘30s and early ‘40s that is painted here – with its smoky jazz clubs and sidewalk bistros – is richly rendered. For a female author, Edugyan – who is young; she’s 34-years-old according to an article published in the Victoria Times Colonist in January – deftly gets the cadence of men, and how they talk to one another, pitch-perfect. This makes Half-Blood Blues a startling crystalline read, and one can spend a few good hours just getting lost in the rhythm of the language and the backstory of the mostly male characters.
However, Half-Blood Blues, for all of the praise being heaped on it, misses the mark in a few places. For one, we know what happens to Falk in the prologue, which means that the flashbacks to earlier times interspersed throughout the book are without tension or suspense: we now know what’s going to happen and when, so when the book spends some 40 or 50 pages with its characters holed up in hiding in a German nightclub after an attack on some overzealous Nazis, the proceedings feel claustrophobic and, well, boring. We understand that everyone makes it out of that scrape okay, so the novel just seems to plod along at that point in the text, about a third of the way in.
It may have been better if the author hadn’t revealed Falk’s eventual capture until later in the story. As well, much of the motivations of the narrator seem to be a bit mysterious: we know that it’s his fault that Falk got captured, but the reasons behind it are a little hazy and murky. Was it because Falk was getting a little cozy with a female Canadian-American singer who appears in the lives of the characters, one that Griffiths had a sizable hankering on? Or was it because Griffiths wanted to really cut a record with Falk as opposed to getting out of France when the getting was good? It’s hard to say.
The main conceit of the book – that Falk becomes a sensation in the jazz community when “Half-Blood Blues” finally sees release years later – is a bit hokey. It’s hard to swallow that someone would be so celebrated for one single song, especially considering the fact that the originally recording is actually damaged due to the primitive nature of how it was recorded and transported out of Paris, let alone the fact that most jazz musicians build their legacies on not one single, but on years and years of performing and cutting revelatory music.
The story also sometimes lapses into cliché: Jones backstabs Griffiths in the Falk documentary, but Griffiths, despite being profoundly hurt, winds up making the journey with Jones into Poland, anyway, because the plot more or less calls for it. Finally, in spite of the fact that the novel’s characters tend to be of mixed race – Griffiths is black but can pass for being white, and another Jewish character is said to have Aryan features – not a lot is done with the ambiguity of being not of one culture during the Second World War. This feels like a thread that was picked up, but then dropped, unclear as to what the author wanted to do with it.
That all said, Half-Blood Blues is still an inspiring read, and the author can be forgiven for some of her lapses due to her youth. (It is said that if you’re about 35-year-old and a published author, you’re still considered to be a bit of a baby in publishing circles. Many authors tend to be much, much older, falling into writing as a post-retirement career in some cases.) There’s still a lingering sense of wanting to know what Griffiths and Jones will find in Poland, and the ending is tinged with a certain sense of misplaced redemption and bittersweetness. Even when it plods, and when you know how things will turn out, you’ll keep turning the pages of Half-Blood Blues simply to find out how it ends.
As such, Half-Blood Blues is a remarkably commanding sophomore novel – one that doesn’t really fall prey to the so-called sophomore slump – and one leaves it pleased that the book got its due despite its troubled publication history in Canada. It may sidestep the nature of the black experience during the Holocaust, but Half-Blood Blues has an altogether different story in mind: this is not a work about the tragedy and horror of the darkest days of the Second World War, but the sword that twisted in people’s backs in the years leading up to it. It’s an intriguing tale, nevertheless, and an important one that has deservedly shined not just on Canadian shores, but on the world stage. Despite the odd misplaced sour note, Half-Blood Blues is a hot blooded novel certainly worthy of reading.