Friday, 26 August 2011

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan – A Missed Opportunity

It has certainly been a good summer for Canadian author, Esi Edugyan. At the beginning of July, her latest novel, Half Blood Blues, was dramatised and serialised for BBC Radio 4’s popular late-night programme, Book At Bedtime. This was followed, two weeks later, by the announcement that the book had been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. With so much positive buzz abounding, this novel surely wouldn’t disappoint … or would it?

Set in Berlin and Paris in the late 1930s and early 1940s, while occasionally fast-forwarding to the present day, Half Blood Blues tells the story of a group of jazz musicians who, on the brink of stardom, fall foul of the Nazi Party’s laws banning so-called ‘degenerate’ music.

The group, known as Hot Time Blues, is made up of a motley crew of musicians – the novel’s African American narrator, Sid Griffiths and his best friend, Chip Jones, are from Baltimore, while the other band members hail from Germany. The star of the show is undoubtedly 19-year-old Hieronymous Falk, an awesomely talented trumpeter, who has recently come to the attention of jazz legend, Louis Armstrong.

Unfortunately for Hiero, the fact that he was born to an African father and a German mother meant he has been deemed a crossbreed, or Mischling, by the Nazi Party. When Mischlings were rendered ‘stateless’ or non-German in accordance with the Third Reich’s Legal Provisions, Hiero becomes a prime candidate for transportation to the dreaded camps. The book follows Hiero and this group of misfits as they flee Berlin to the relative safety of Paris, where they are due to cut a record with Armstrong. However, France’s capitulation to Germany in 1940 means the Nazis finally catch up with the unlucky Hiero …

Given what we all know about Hitler’s Aryan ideals, it comes as surprise to realise that, despite the vast swathes of material written about this bleak period of history, we know relatively little about the fate of black or mixed race people in the Nazi Fatherland. This novel had the potential to plug this gap in our knowledge … but, unfortunately, it falls short.

Esi Edugyan
Instead of making the black experience in Nazi Germany the focal point of the novel, Edugyan merely skims the surface of this under-examined subject. What should be the novel’s main storyline is relegated to a mere sideshow, as the author instead explores more superficial avenues. Preferring to dwell on themes of unrequited love, jealousy and betrayal, Edugyan squanders a unique opportunity – that is, the opportunity to write an ‘important’ novel on the Afro-German experience during the Third Reich.

'Half Blood Blues' by Esi Edugyan is published by Serpent's Tail

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