Half Blood Blues

Half-Blood Blues
by Esi Edugyan
2012 / 343 pages
rating 9

This should be interesting –  it’s kind of an historical novel – set in Paris – 1940,  Berlin – 1992,  Berlin – 1939, Paris – 1939,  and Poland – 1992.  And the main characters are all of various ethnicities and  play in a very popular jazz band of the times – of the times … think about that.

The narrator’s voice was irritating at first,  but I got used to it and it was perfect – or very close to it.  The metaphors weren’t particularly appropriate (as far as I could tell) but they weren’t clichéd – no points there.

The story’s strength is in the characters and the interweaving of history and  plot -showing how the times affected the lives of black musicians from the old pre-Reich jazz age.

The characters are
Heiro – the main trumpet player,  young,  Berlin-born son of a black GI WWI father and a German mother.   Sid – the narrator –  son of Baltimore (US) parents.  Chip,  from the same neighborhood as Sid – friends in the US,  they joined the band together.  Delilah – harbors and helps them in Paris,   a friend of Armstrong,   Fritz – a band member in Berlin,  Ernst, a jazz lover friend,  German.

Chap 1 – Paris 1940 –  A disc of the last session gets taken by Chip? Sid?  Heiro gets arrested and eventually sent to Mauthausen Concentration Camp.  Sid sees it happen.

Paris occupied by German forces June 1940

Chap 2 – Berlin 1992 – Sid has been living in a big old house,  Chip comes to visit and take him to a documentary of the group.  Chip is doing quite well,  Sid does okay – they’re both about 80 now.   In the documentary Chip accuses Sid of turning Heiro over to the Gestapo.   But Chip wants to go to Poland to see Heiro who, he says,  is alive there.

“The date on which the Wall fell is considered to have been 9 November 1989 but the Wall in its entirety was not torn down immediately. Starting that evening and in the days and weeks that followed, people came to the wall with sledgehammers or otherwise hammers and chisels to chip off souvenirs, demolishing lengthy parts of it in the process and creating several unofficial border crossings. These people were nicknamed “Mauerspechte” (wall woodpeckers).”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_Wall

Post-war Communist Poland to present day 

Chap 3 – Berlin 1939 –  A new character,  Paul, is introduced.  He’s a blonde Jew who is an out of work pianist.  Members of the group are harassed by the Nazis and end up hiding out in a defunct club.  Ernst, their manager, gets them help with passports, transportation and travel from his father, a Nazi officer.  They escape to Paris.

Jazz in Germany  –  from Wiki:
Jazz was found as an uncommon link between the blacks and Jews. Jews at that time were recognized in jazz, not just as musicians and composers, but also as commercial managers, serving as the middlemen of the music. After the Great War in Germany, Negrophobia coalesced with the preexisting anti-Semitism and flourished, especially since Jews were often depicted as having a racial affinity with blacks, possessing similar objectionable qualities. Jews were prevalent figures in new art forms such as jazz, cabaret, and film. Often, a great number of jazz band leaders were Jews, many from Eastern Europe, like Bela, Weber, Efim Schachmeister, Paul Godwin, and Ben Berlin.[5]

Chapter 4 – Berlin 1992 – Chip and Sid continue on to Poland to see Heiro.

Chapter 5 – Paris 1939 (in three parts)  –  Sid and Chip and Heiro and ? are in Paris and see Louis Armstrong.  (This is totally imagined – Armstrong was not in Paris at the time –  but it’s been accepted because of the detail.)

Jazz Journal review 

Some themes so far are the historical times and place as well as the music.  Then there is jealousy, betrayal, love and guilt.  Various forms of love?  Group dynamics.  Putting the music ahead of the people?   Whew!  And much of this is historical – more than I thought would be.

In Part 3 Chapter 3 Heiro shows the group around Hamburg,  his home town – if you can call a zoo a home.   He was raised in one of the “people exhibits” at Hagenbach’s Tiergarten  .

William II of Germany speaking with human exhibitions at Hagenbeck Tiergarten.

You get the picture – This may not win the Booker,  but it sure deserves a place on the long list.

Excellent review at a blog: 

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