Half Blood Blues – Esi Edugyan

1 February 2012
Parts 1, 2 and the start of 3
Why am I not enjoying this? From the first page I was thinking there were far too many words, especially adjectives, as though Edugyan doesn’t trust the reader to fill in any of the gaps that some writers might be tempted to leave. If someone is thin, the narrator will routinely mention his thin arms or thin fingers; if a character has blond hair… ditto. It isn’t necessary. We’re supposed to be with a group of hipsters in Paris in 1940, and what we’re getting is this verbiage. Among other things – I’ll get to them in a minute – this made me think it must be a debut novel. Ok, so I was wrong, but not very.

What other things? How about, I don’t believe any of it? We have a first-person narrator, an American of mixed race who writes – or speaks – in an unfeasible mixture of a fairly broad black Baltimore dialect and careful literary language. It feels wrong, because the descriptive passages, full of high-flown imagery – Sid, steeped in jazz, calls it hi-hat – simply don’t fit with his dialect verb forms like ‘we was’ or ‘I knowed’. Getting the voice of a first-person narrator to sound real is not an easy trick to pull off, and I constantly feel that the voice of Esi Edugyan, young author, elbows its way in.

It happens in a different way in Part 2, when the narrator is in his eighties. We get descriptions of old age, mainly concerning appearance, that simply don’t ring true coming from someone who has grown into the experience over decades. Later still, in a time-line set when he is perhaps about 30, we get male lust in Sid’s description of how he can’t take his eyes off a woman he’s just met. This is Delilah, also of mixed race, and we know from Part 1 that the band will later be living in her place in Paris. (Edugyan is keen to for the chronology to be anything but straightforward.) Ok. But I’m not at all convinced by the way the narrator has to keep repeating how he can’t take his eyes off the bit of thigh her skirt reveals as she sits.

I had read most of Parts 1 and 2 when I decided to google the author. Esi Edugyan is a woman, which I hadn’t known, is Canadian – no surprise there, because there has been a poorly concealed moment of authorial self-deprecation when she has the narrator tell us that the best way to put an end to any conversation is to mention Canada – and is in her early 30s. None of this comes as a surprise, and I began to understand some of my qualms. (I’ll come clean: I’d already discovered she was a 30-something woman when I reached the bit where Sid, the narrator, is fixating on the ‘tawny’ skin of Delilah’s legs.)

But that’s enough of that. What about the plot? It starts in Paris just after the Nazi occupation has begun. Sid, narrating, describes how the jazz band he is in are trying to record a track, but something about it isn’t right: one of the band members keeps scrapping each disc as it comes off the machine. They runnin’ outa discs, man (or something), so Sid hides the last one in his case. Remember that. Next day – for some unearthly reason they don’t remember that it’s Sunday until they realise all the shops are shut – Sid escorts the youngest band member to try to find some milk… etc. The Boots – their word for the Nazis – arrest the young one. He’s ‘the kid’, Hieronymus Falk, German-born of a black father and white mother in the Rhineland, governed by France after the Great War – a region where they placed a number of black settlers, we later discover. Sid assures us there was nothing he could do about Hiero’s arrest, and he runs away. Remember that as well.

Does this sound like a history lesson? Sometimes the novel does. Edugyan has obviously done her research, and wants to focus on the experience of people of mixed race: Sid is the son of ‘quadroon’ parents, and when he meets Delilah recognises another who, like him, can pass for white unless you know what to look for. Edugyan likes to write about what she’s interested in, and this is obviously one of those things. She is the daughter of Ghanaian parents but, well, she’s talked to people. Something else she’s interested in is jazz, and there’s no bore like a jazz bore. She has Sid and the other characters talk about it as though it combines deep philosophical truths and, somehow, the essence of black experience. It’s no accident that Hiero, with his background, is already hailed as a genius at the age of nineteen.

The Saturday night and Sunday morning in Paris take up Part 1. Part 2 moves the action forward 50-odd years, briefly to Baltimore and then to Berlin. Sid and Chip, a horn-player in the band, are to attend the premiere of a documentary about Hiero and the band. But, we find out obliquely, Hiero died shortly after the war, which he’d spent in a concentration camp. (Yawn.) I’ll hurry up. Chip tells Sid he’s had letters from Hiero, who isn’t dead but is in Poland. This is preposterous, Sid thinks. We think, it’s almost certainly true, because even Chip the inveterate liar wouldn’t make up such a thing. Flight to Berlin, lost luggage, posh hotel – and a shock for Sid. Having been flown in first class, lodged in an expensive hotel, and feted at the premiere – though not as much as Chip, who has remained a jazz legend into old age – Sid watches the movie. And it’s clear that the documentary maker has cast him as the villain. Chip himself – he later swears his words are taken out of context and edited deceptively – accuses him of having given up the young genius to the Nazis, thus depriving the world of… etc. That Sid saved the only record of the Paris session pales into insignificance beside this, and as he leaves the cinema he hears whispered insults.

This seems preposterous. Unless Edugyan has a particular motive in mind for him – and I suppose she might, like he’s fixated on avenging the dead jazz legend – for a documentary-maker to save up a nasty surprise like this is beyond credibility. Sid, rightly, is beyond fury with both Chip and the film-maker, and makes plans to leave Berlin. But before he can go, he sees Chip practically wrecking an expensive car – the one he’s hired to drive to Poland to see Hiero – and he gets into the driver’s seat. (Yawn, again.) End of Part 2.

Part 3: tell you when I’ve finished reading it.

3 February
To the end of Part 3
How can I keep complaining about a novel that covers ground as unusual as the experience of blacks in Germany and occupied Paris? In Hamburg, on their way out of Germany – tell you later – Hiero takes Sid to a place where he can show how the Germans see him. Hiero might be of mixed race, but, like Chip, his skin is black – as, of course, this narrator keeps telling us. They go to the zoo at Hagenbecks Park, and Sid doesn’t get it. And then he does: on display in a fenced-off area is an African village of men, women and children. (I googled this, and discovered that such displays were not uncommon in several western countries, including the USA, from the late 19th Century onwards. Just saying.)

I complain because however interesting the subject matter might be, the quality of the writing doesn’t stand up. Those jarring little things that I mentioned earlier keep on happening, like the 80-something describing how he and Chip walk through an airport: ‘We was making our slow, shambling way towards the gate.’ It sounds like a third-person narrative that’s been carelessly converted into first, and for a while I began to wonder whether that’s how Edugyan originally drafted it. And there are the adjectives. We meet the father of Ernst, one of the German band members, and in less than five lines we get eleven adjectives and an adverb describing him at his desk. Sometimes – and I’m not pretending it’s all the time – Edugyan writes like a beginner.

Anyway. In Part 3 – longer than Parts 1 and 2 together – the boys finally realise that Berlin is not a good place to be in 1939. Thanks to strings pulled by Ernst’s father, high up in the Nazi hierarchy, they get fake papers to take them over the French border. Earlier there’s some embarrassingly awful locker-room banter, some sexual rivalry – Sid fancies Delilah but thinks Hiero has got in there first – and a street brawl with some Boots. They’ve had to hide away in Delilah’s club for days and, as they debate whether to go to Paris, the German Jewish band member is arrested and Delilah disappears. (He’s the one with the floppy Aryan-looking blond hair; she’s the one who – wait for it – manages Louis Armstrong. Yeh, sure.)

Galvanised at last, the others get ready to leave. A third German band member, Fritz – the one who routinely has adjectives referring to his size and weight appended to any mention of him – has been staying elsewhere and drops a bombshell: he isn’t coming with them because he’s done the dirty by signing up with a Nazi-approved pseudo-jazz band in Berlin. Boo. The rest are driven by Ernst in his big car to his father’s mansion near Hamburg. He gives them the papers – and Ernst drops another bombshell: he is staying in Germany as well, giving up the chance to meet his hero, Louis Armstrong. Sid realises he had to sacrifice himself to get the papers.

So then there were – how many? Sid, Chip, Hiero and… is that it? And do I really care? Do I really care about any of it? It’s as uninvolving as the first two sections, especially as they kick their heels in Berlin. There are overlong scenes in which relationships are tested, rivalries grow and are resolved, cheap liquor is drunk – and this reader, at least, yawns a lot. Sid, drunk, is persuaded that what janes like from a jack is presents – Lord keep us from the jive-talk peppering this 80-something’s narrative – and that he’s competing with Hiero for Delilah’s affections. The Kid has given her a turban made of a curtain he found in their hidey-hole when the Boots came to look for them – and something else, impossible for poor Sid to match: his way of creating music that can do to your soul whatever it is that jazz does in novels like this.

We get a scene of embarrassment: after drunkenly searching for the necessary hi-hat word to describe how Delilah must be feeling, Sid comes up with ‘frigid’ instead of cold – hands up if you believe any of this…. No? – and offers her his coat. But it all turns out ok when, sober now, he tells her he loves her. Even when she takes off the turban to reveal she is almost bald, he doesn’t change his mind…. I don’t know what point Edugyan is making about male seduction techniques, but it seems to be that all you need is a sincere heart. Aww. (Delilah is Canadian, by the way. And as the band members drive from Berlin, she is still missing. Ok?)

So, we’ve been in Paris in late 1940 in Part 1, had the back-story of why they left Berlin in Part 3, and the parallel story of what is happening in 1992 separating them. Part 4 is ‘Berlin, 1992’ again, so I guess the rest of the novel is to be about the resolution of the two narratives into one. Sid is looking for confirmation of his own version of his relationship with Hiero after the shafting he got in the movie. We’ve seen some serious bonding going on once the rivalry over Delilah is resolved in 1939, like the zoo visit, but the only person who will be able to verify this will be Hiero himself. Better get driving to Poland.

5 February
Part 4, and some of Part 5 – as far as the French capitulation in Chapter 3
‘I give her a grim, exasperated look.’ This is Sid, near the end of Chapter 1 in Part 5 – but if Esi Edugyan were here, that’s the look she’d be getting from me. The sentence sums up in seven words almost everything I find awkward in her style, from the way Sid comments on his own ‘look’ in the manner of a third-person narrator to the inconsistency of that dialect rendering of the past tense – ‘I give…’ that segues into hi-hat language. Nobody talks like that: if you’ve learned that kind of vocabulary, you’ve learned standard forms of English as well. In the same chapter: ‘My face gone hot, hearing myself talk like this. I ain’t never spoken to a jane this way…’ followed, half a page later, by ‘I felt a hot radiance in my nerves, my whole body filling with a confused, battered feeling, like a moth caught in a lantern.’ And this book was shortlisted for a literary prize? Jesus.

Part 4 is the journey east. Poland is exactly as you’d expect, with a clapped-out ex-army bus and every last thing mean or dirty or both. Edugyan inserts another long flashback to Sid’s childhood – the first had been in Part 2 – to the first time he heard Chip, aged thirteen, playing the drums in Baltimore. It’s also his first sexual experience, which I didn’t believe a word of. I’ll spare you the details. Back in the present, a thought occurs to him: is Hiero expecting both of them to visit, or just Chip? Chip is evasive, but when Sid reads one of the letters lying in Chip’s bag, it’s clear that Hiero has definitely not asked specifically to see him. Oh dear… but we’ll have to wait for the outcome, because as they get near to the out-of-the-way place where Hiero now lives…

…we’re back in Paris as war is declared. There are several threads: the phoney war before the Nazi break through and occupy Paris; the godlike presence of Louis Armstrong, and their chance of playing with him on a record; and the rickety love triangle, continued. Sid’s jealousy, which he always denies, is made more complicated by the mixed messages he keeps getting from Delilah, and his own habit of behaving like a petulant child. I can’t be bothered by any of it. The conversation he has in Chapter 1 of Part 5 seems to be signalling the end of the affair, but no. Then, because of an adolescent-style outburst in Chapter 2 in which his jealousy is revealed in all its ugliness, she tells him Hiero is just a younger brother to her. They don’t speak again for what seems like months, although Edugyan doesn’t feel the need to explain how the close proximity they all live in can permit this.

Sid seems to have at least some reasons to doubt Hiero: long before the outburst he discovers that Hiero didn’t pass on a message from Delilah in Berlin that she was safe and was on her way to Paris. He’d let Sid stew for days in Berlin, and for the whole journey to Paris, and wonders whether this accounts for Hiero’s sudden friendliness on the trip over: it’s guilt, he thinks. The reader thinks, get on with it.

Are we nearly there yet? One of the other threads I mentioned is the war, where things get worse and worse as the French army collapses in the east and basic necessities start to become scarce in Paris. The end. The other is the Louis Armstrong thing. The big let-down for Sid is that, following a bad performance in a jam-session (that seems, bizarrely to have consisted of playing a single tune), he isn’t invited to play on the record Armstrong wants to make. Why is he playing so badly? Why do you think? He’s jealous of all the attention Hiero is getting and it puts him off. Jesus, again.

As Chapter 3 of this section carries on, Delilah insists they’d better get out before the Nazis arrive. She sorts out travel papers for most of them – but getting these for Hiero will be more complicated. Armstrong is already out of there, and as artillery can be heard in the distance Delilah leaves a message to Chip and Sid to meet her at the station…. But we know from Part 1, of course, that they aren’t going anywhere. Is it only because they don’t want to leave Hiero, now that things between him and Sid have been on a more civilised footing for some time? Don’t know, and I’m not sure I really care.

10 February
Part 5 continued, and Part 6 – to the end
Finally, things start to come to life a bit in this novel. The reason they don’t leave is because they can’t. They get to the Gare Austerlitz, and Edugyan shows us the chaos of a city full of people learning how to be refugees. Some are better at it than others. Sid, noticing the provisions some people have brought for the journey, realises how unprepared he and Chip are. But there are clearly not going to be enough trains, if any at all, and they leave the station…. I rather enjoyed this section, because we’re on what seems like a genuine historical stage for a change. (I remember liking the retreat to Dunkirk in Atonement and the underground excavations in Birdsong for the same reason. Otherwise I wasn’t very keen on those books.) They meet Delilah and Hiero and, eventually, decide they’ll just have to go back and face whatever the Nazis have in store for them.

Soon they’re back thinking about playing again, and have found a horn player. There’s the sense of an end of things, a kind of desperation – and they are going to make that record they never finished with Armstrong. It’s a kind of satirical take on a Nazi anthem which, when they first discussed it some chapters ago, made me think of Hendrix’s rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock. This is going to be Half Blood Blues, and if the rest isn’t history yet, it soon will be: we’re approaching the time of the recording session that opens the novel. But…

…now is when we get the coming-together of a cluster of ironies that are the best thing in the novel. The recording studio has no electricity yet, but they play anyway, the first time for Sid since the debacle with Armstrong half a year ago. And, as Hiero plays with a new-found maturity, Sid recognises that this is the player who can raise him up, for the length of each tune, from mediocrity. But not long after this, he is at the door when a runner brings Hiero’s papers at last – and he has a kind of brainstorm. If he gives Hiero the papers, Hiero will be out of there – but not as far as America, and he’ll never play with Sid again. So he hides them. Within minutes, Delilah is practically interrogating him, but he faces her out. What papers? What messenger-boy? And we come to realise what he’s lived with all his life: he condemns Hiero to the camps for the duration and, as far as he knew until a few days ago, to death. So the Polish trip suddenly takes on some resonance. Sid has got to face the man whose life he diverted from rising jazz hero to – what? Obscurity in the Eastern bloc. Bring it on.

The final part is Poland, 1992, so it’s going to be about forgiveness, redemption, yes? Well, up to a point. Except it’s not that easy, obviously, and this ending brings others with it. All this dredging up of the past has brought a lot of people to life, and now Sid contemplates their deaths – allowing Edugyan to tie up a few threads. Ernst: suicidally volunteering to fight in Russia, his final defiance of his father. Paul, the Jewish band-member: well, we know. Fritz: bombed. Delilah: blood cancer. So it goes. But Hiero’s not dead, and there’s the matter of a little confession to deal with. I’ll get to that…

…but first they have to get there. The bus-driver has left them and their luggage, and they’re at a big, industrial-looking place. There’s an essay to be written – though not by me – about the places the character in this novel find to live in. Sid’s Baltimore apartment in 1992 is seedy, all the places they find in Paris are temporary, often not really places to live at all. The only comfortable one is Ernst’s father’s, a mansion that Edugyan spends whole paragraphs describing…. Hiero’s is another one found out of necessity, a former electricity works, and it’s guarded by huge, semi-figurative metal sculptures. Say, don’t that one look like Hiero? And Sid, ain’t that you? Well, maybe. It’s the most cinematic scene that we’ve had so far – it might be the Coen Brothers – and coming into shot now is Hiero himself, white-haired, white-bearded, and blind.

Hiero and Chip: uncomplicated. Sid: dark thoughts about what he’s going to say. He goes to bed having decided he’ll confess about the travel papers in the morning, and has vivid dreams all night. In the morning he loses his nerve (yawn – get on with it) and then he tells Hiero anyway. And, basically, it’s ok. What else would it be? Hiero has had 50 years to get used to a life in which those days in Berlin and Paris have become a half-remembered early chapter. He isn’t about to start grieving over the road not taken, even when he realises the enormity of what Sid is telling him. His record collection isn’t jazz, as he’s been showing Chip, and Sid plays a record after Hiero has gone out of the room. It’s extraordinary, whatever it is, and when Hiero returns, what’s he going to do? He’s going to tell him to play it again, isn’t he? Because what good did regrets ever do?

2 Responses to Half Blood Blues – Esi Edugyan

  1. A. St Pierre says:

    thank you for your comments. i thought it was me having a hard time getting through this book after hearing about the awards it has won.

  2. Patricia says:

    Sorry Kid, I enjoyed the book…yes rough spots but hey it’s a young writer cut her some slack don’t cut her to pieces!

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