Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Half Blood Blues is a novel by Esi Edugyan. It deals with territory that is rarely successful for the writer, that of music and musicians. They have surely been many successful books about writers, painters, even sculptures. But novels where the composition and performance of music figure large are often rather less than significant and are often, frankly, unsuccessful. Perhaps it has to do with the non-visual, largely abstract and utterly personal nature of the effects of sound and our individual responses to it. It’s hard to avoid cliché when words have to describe music. Time, surely, also plays its part, since for the listener music exists within its own time that can neither be controlled or compressed into a phrase.

After such a preamble, the congratulations to Esi Edugyan for her convincing portrayal of jazz musicians in Half Blood Blues are significant. We are in the late 1930s, long before free expression or even bebop, in a period when Sydney Bechet was still cool and Louis Armstrong was the hot thing, but these characters assembled in prewar Berlin do form a convincing band. In the novel’s pages, we do feel what it might be like to play bass, horn, trumpet or bass. Drummers, perhaps, like guitarists have always been a race apart.

Half Blood Blues focuses on the life of Hiero, a German who happens to be both a jazz musician and black. With his fellow band members, Chip and Sid, he ekes out a living playing clubs in a city where the expression they choose is now seen as degenerate. Just a few years before, American music, even jazz played by black people, had been popular, but times have changed. The musicians sense that change, but Hiero feels it more deeply, because now he is doubly estranged from the country he must call home. Changing times, the onset of war and the threat of violence forces the band to flee to Paris, in the hope they can escape across the Atlantic.

Like stereotypical performers, the bohemians are somewhat scattered in their habits, seek casual sex, use drugs and eat sporadically. Delilah enters their lives. She presents a different approach to life, and almost surreal vision of what the men assume to constitute a woman and she thus seems to possess influence over these men’s lives as they pursue their expression, albeit personal, via the ensemble and its public sound.

The book opens in Paris in 1940 and revisits later. The band of had to flee their home in Germany. It also inhabits Berlin in 1939 to trace the origins of the band’s flight from Nazism and then it revisits the same city in 1992, as a couple of characters trace what might have this might’ve happened as a consequence of actions over 50 years earlier.

By the time they reach Poland in 1992 in an attempt to trace one of their number, they are thoroughly surprised, exonerated, if not actually forgiven. At the heart of the tale the influence of the music, especially the improvisation, is paramount. It’s what you do now at this instant that matters. You might plan, you can reflect, you might even rehearse. But the now is all that matters. Just play on.

Esi Edugyan uses a certain style of language here and there to characterize the protagonists as jazz musicians and in some cases foreigners and in others black. It is not overused and so achieves its intention, so it rarely intrudes between the character and the reader. The intention, however, successfully communicates the characters’ status as outsiders and it’s never over-used.

At the heart of this novel, whose plot is significant and so will not be described here, is an act of betrayal, selfishness and duplicity that lays on the conscience for decades. The victim, once traced, indicates that life went on and reasserts the importance of engaging with the here and now. Which all goes to show, you can contemplate to your heart’s content and even analyse endlessly, but the only real advice is to get on with it and life will create itself. Improvise.


Source by Philip Spires

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