There was much bemoaning and bewailing last year when not a single Canadian title appeared on the 2010 longlist. This year the fight back is on with a double whammy on the shortlist – both of which appealed to me right away.
Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues opens in Paris in 1940 as the remaining members of the Hot Time Swingers, a jazz band formerly based in Berlin, await their exit visas to Switzerland. They are Sid and Chip, two American musicians and Hieronymous Falk, a young, brilliant trumpeteer. Falk’s position as a stateless black Rhinelander is precarious and occupied Paris is not the place for him to wander around without papers. Yet one day he does just that, searching for something to eat. He finds an open cafe. So do the Gestapo. The prologue ends as he is arrested and transported to a concentration camp.
52 years later, Sid and Chip, are preparing to return from America to Berlin to a festival honouring Falk, who was never seen again and believed to have died in the concentration camp. It is clear that Sid, the narrator, continues to harbour feelings of guilt with regard to Falk’s arrest. Obviously it’s not as simple as his failure to ensure that Falk had his papers. Sid takes his time revealing the secret and its consequences, meandering back and forth in time between Berlin/Paris in 1939-1940 and Berlin/Poland in 1992. He sheds light on the “degenerate” world of the jazz artist to use the Nazi-assigned adjective and the tightening of the terror. He plays a close hand with regard to his own actions, gradually revealing himself to be petty, jealous and vindictive Janus. Fortunately for Sid there are people greater than he and that ensures a redemption of sorts.
To the author’s credit the time shifts are not at all confusing. I particularly liked the segue on page 187/189 – the band driving through the border from Germany to France in 1939 transforming into the two older men beginning their drive to Poland in 1992. The narrative is seamless, entertaining and educational. The research with regard to the life of a jazz musician in Nazi Germany and the plight of the black stateless Rhinelander remains transparent at all times. There are, however, a couple of plot twists that stretched my credulity and the decision to tell the story from the viewpoint of the unworthy Sid rather than from the viewpoint of the victim Falk shifts the focus from the true tragedy. None of this affects the readability, that highly esteemed virtue according to this year’s judges. I motored my way through the book.
Perhaps too quickly because I made no notes. That means that I’ve clocked the subtleties, the riffs with regard to skin tone that are at play but I can discuss them no deeper than the obvious irony. That the Afro-German, Hiero, is far more vulnerable in Europe than the Afro-American, Sid (who can pass as a white man). Yet Sid perceives Hiero to be an almighty threat, his nemesis almost. Second time through, as a judge rereading the shortlist, I’d be tracking this through in more detail, paying more attention to the impact of this history on other racial hues: the Aryan German, the Jew and the black American, Chip. Plus Louis Armstrong with his Canadian broad. Does the sum of the individual part add up to more than its total? Are there new insights on offer? Is the originality of the setting - the end of the German jazz age – and the language of musicians - enough to take home the Booker Prize? Were you a more careful reader than I was? If so, what do you think?