Monday, 10 September 2012

Half Blood Blues - Esi Edugyan


Another of the shortlisted novels for last year's Booker - also winner of the Scotiabank Prize 2011 and contender for the Orange Prize 2012 - this is a scorching idea.  Black American jazz musicians Sid and Chips find themselves marooned in Berlin when war breaks out and then, foolishly, stranded in Paris when the Nazis invade.  It's not necessarily so bad - black people are so rare in Germany that the Nazis haven't got them on their proscribed list.  But jazz is degenerate and half-bloods like boy wonder trumpeter Hiero Falk are degenerate in every sense.  In Paris there are lots of black jazz musicians, including Louis Satchmo Armstrong and his presumed mistress Delilah Brown, who is Canadian like our author.  But when the Germans invade and the locals flee Paris Hiero is mistaken for a Senegalese deserter.  And when the Germans arrive, well...  Hiero is captured.  Sid sees it all, and lives with the memory for 51 years, until someone makes a documentary about the legendary Hiero Falk.  Chips is in the film because he's aged into something of a legend himself.  Sid is the man who created the legend by stealing the wax recording of Hiero's Half Blood Blues, which went on to become a jazz classic.  He is also the guy who betrayed the young genius.

Back in Berlin for the premiere, Sid discovers that Chip has actually heard from Hiero.  He's amazingly still alive and living in Poland...

Sid narrates the tale and flashbacks in hip jazzy argot, which is great and, as far as I could tell, pitch perfect, though you'd think some new terms might be coined over a fifty year period.  The main characters are fully-rounded creations.  Chips is sly, Sid more than a little self-serving, Delilah suitably bewitching, the young Hiero hopelessly lost, unable to find his place in the world.  Personally I wouldn't have bothered with Armstrong, whose reality muddies the waters unnecessarily.  Whilst I am absolutely clear why Sid steals the recording I am utterly unclear as to why he commits the act of betrayal.  And ultimately the successful quest of the two octogenarians is let down by its object.  It's a bit like finding the truth behind the Wizard of Oz, only it's not funny, not dramatic and just very, very sad.

A book that could have been better, then.  But nonetheless a book every bit as good as its 2011 peers and one which everybody who cares about the contemporary novel should read.

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