Dark Notes in Nazi Berlin

The fate of black jazz musicians in Hitler’s Europe

At this writing, Esi Edugyan’s novel is beginning to take shape as a publishing phenomenon. It looks as if a star is being born after the book lost its original home in a failed publishing house before being picked up by Thomas Allen. The novel has gone from rags to riches. For one thing, there are not many Canadian novels that are simultaneously published in Canada, Great Britain and, in German translation, Germany (Insel Verlag, November). For another, this affecting book has garnered mostly excellent reviews across this country and been short-listed for the Giller, Booker and Rogers prizes. The prize season is still developing, so the novel may have attracted even more acclaim by the time this review is published. And it is no wonder. Half-Blood Blues is both funny and tragic and written in an accessible, practically pitch-perfect voice.

The novel is a memory piece set in two time periods. The first takes place in Germany and France from 1927 until 1940, from the heady artistic ferment from the Weimar Republic to the oppressive atmosphere of Nazi-occupied Paris. The second is set in 1992 around the time of the screening of a German documentary of the lives of three jazz musicians and their band. They are a former jazz bassist named Sid, a successful drummer called Chip and a mysterious, apparently deceased genius of a horn player known as Hieronymus (The Kid) Falk.

The modern public’s interest lies primarily in the almost mythical Falk, a German-born musician of mixed parentage, very young but exceptionally talented, so much so that a few newly discovered discs of his recordings in occupied France in 1940 are enough to make him into an object of musical veneration. Shortly after making the recordings, the young musician was picked up by the Germans and sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. It was a place designed for the extermination of the intelligentsia, and it was the place where Falk was believed to have died. That is, until a strand of information leads Sid and Chip, now old men, to go looking for him in Poland, of all places.

Chip and Sid are childhood friends from Baltimore, but their fates have been very different. Chip went on to fame as a drummer while Sid gave it all up to work as a medical transcriptionist. These two grumpy old men banter and drink scotch and smoke (!) and travel by plane, car and broken-down bus across Europe in a quest to find their old band-mate and to solve the mystery of his survival. A second mystery has to do with brooding Sid’s betrayal of the young genius back in Paris.

The rise of the Nazis and the fear and depression of the occupied French have been so well documented as to seem beyond any writer’s ability to reveal anything new. And yet the plight of jazz musicians who had gone to Europe to avoid racism in America has never been thoroughly popularized in fiction. Louis Armstrong and Bill Coleman were there and so was Josephine Baker, among others.

Jazz and its practitioners were the enemy to the Nazis, as dramatized in the film Swing Kids. Since some of the band members in Half-Blood Blues are Germans, they are stranded in hostile Berlin as the days grow darker. When the musicians get into a street fight with some Nazis and one of the thugs is killed, the regime’s fury descends on them. They must go underground and eventually make their way to Paris.

Although Sid is the least talented of the musicians, he is the narrator and the most complex of the characters. When they reach Paris, Louis Armstrong is impressed by the music of the other two, but invites Sid to sit out some important sets.

Sid is justifiably stung and envious, particularly of the horn player Hiero, who seems to have received his talent for no good reason.

One of the major themes of the novel is the unfairness of the distribution of talent. The envy of the hard-working but less gifted artist is conveyed particularly well here. Sid brings to mind another bitter artist in fiction, the hackneyed Dutch painter Dirk Stroeve, in Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence. The bestowal of talent is capricious and cruel, both Maugham and Edugyan assert. The talented man can seem to have so little virtue in him, so little to warrant the blessing of his greatness. Industry and determination go unrewarded.

The tortured bassist must suffer even more because he is desperately in love with Armstrong’s emissary, the beautiful Delilah. She seems to love him in return, but her feelings are mercurial. Furthermore, she flirts with Hiero and eventually abandons Sid altogether. Miserable in Paris, under the occupation, with his talent belittled and his lover absent, Sid commits a form of treachery that is worthy of Graham Greene. What hurts more, one is tempted to ask, thwarted artistic desire or thwarted love?

This is a historical novel, of course, and the danger in any period piece lies in a kind of preciousness, a cozy familiarity of certain times and places of the kind shown in Woody Allen’s latest movie, Midnight in Paris. Edugyan avoids this danger primarily through the remarkably attractive voice that narrates the novel and makes the themes and the setting feel fresh.

“We talked like mongrels, see—half-German, half Baltimore bar slang,” says Sid. “Just a few scraps of French between us. Only real language I spoke aside from English was Hochdeutsch.”

Not only is Sid an envious betrayer, he is expressive as well, speaking here of Hiero and his work: “’Cause it was his piece, see—he’d been the frontman, had written the damned thing in his blood and spit. He had that massive sound, wild and unexpected, like a thicket of flowers in a bone-dry field.”

The descriptions of exceptional music are also notable, one form of art delivered in another:

The slow dialogue between him and us had a sort of preacher-choir feel to it. But there wasn’t no grace. His was the voice of a country preacher too green to convince the flock. He talked against us like he begging us to listen. He wailed. He moaned. He pleaded and seethed. He dragged every damned feeling out of that trumpet but hate.

Another enjoyable element of the language is the banter among the men, often funny, sometimes cocky, frequently insulting. Edugyan has no problem delivering the male voice, with the various tones of camaraderie as well as male desire.

If there is any criticism that can be made against the novel, it is that the characters are somewhat too erudite. They seem too well versed in the milieu they come out of beyond the world of music, including people of the time such as painter Otto Dix, novelist Erich Kästner, and journalist and satirist Kurt Tucholsky. Clearly the novelist has fallen deeply into the period herself and wants to share some of the layers of it with her readers.

This is a novel of layers, too: a mystery, an examination of romantic and artistic failures and successes, a period piece, a celebration of jazz and, at times, an engaging delivery of vernacular poetry. Above all it is immensely readable, a quality sometimes underappreciated in literary circles.