Saturday, December 10, 2011

And all that jazz

Of the 6 Booker-shortlisted novels this year, I have read only 2, even though I have all of them in my shelf. The reason I somehow make it a point to get my hands on them is that these books are usually good reads. Esi Edugyan's novel, Half Blood Blues, is no exception. In fact, it's one of the best novels I've read this year.

As the novel focuses on jazz musicians during WWII, it becomes evident that Edugyan knows her jazz. But Half Blood Blues is more than just jazz as it is about friendship, betrayal, and the plight of blacks in Europe during the war. It's very fascinating, I tell you. I'm not at all interested about the music nor the artists of this musical genre, but Edugyan uses jazz as a backdrop, as a playing ground where her characters can fully develop themselves.

The novel's narrative alternates between Europe (Berlin and Paris) during the war and Berlin in the 1990s. In Berlin in 1939, just before the war erupts, we get to know three of the major players of the popular jazz band, The Hot Time Swingers: Hieronymus Falk, its very talented trumpet player, is even better than Louis Armstrong, as some people say, and Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones, who are Americans from Baltimore. For these three characters, it's a dangerous time to be in Berlin, for they are all black.

The band escapes to Paris with the help of a woman who is also connected with Louis Armstrong. In Paris, the band plans a collaboration with Louis Armstrong to make a record, which is disrupted when the Germans eventually conquer France and march into Paris to the tearful faces of the Parisians. One night, Sid and Hiero decide to go to a French cafe where Hiero is arrested by the Germans. He is never seen nor heard of again.

The novel's denouement takes place in the 1990s, wherein Chip has invited Sid to go to Berlin to watch a documentary about Hiero. It is in this part of the novel where Edugyan makes you feel the conflicting emotions going on in Sid. It's evident in the earlier part of the novel that Sid could have done something to prevent Hiero's arrest. Trust me, dear reader, when you discover how Sid betrayed his friend, it's almost too painful to bear.

The characters speak in a broken kind of English which takes getting used to. Once you get over it, the language makes the story richer, as if you're reading a diary or journal of sorts. Half Blood Blues did convey a lot of emotions -- the joy of being part of a group of friends with the same interest, the fear of finding yourself in hostile territory, the frustration for the things that should've been, among others.

Edugyan's subject matter is rarely touched among historians, much less by novelists -- blacks in Europe during WWII. There are parts in Half Blood Blues that portray horrific realities brought about by the Nazis. But in the end though, one feels lucky to have read such a fantastic piece of historical fiction.

Read this book if:
  1. You read all the Booker-shortlisted novels every year.
  2. You're into historical fiction.
  3. You love jazz.


Cath said...

Wow--this is an aspect of history I never considered. That alone makes this book a must-read for me.

Peter S. said...

Hi, Cath! This really was an eye-opening read for me. I was not at all familiar with what it means to be black in Europe during WWII.

Stepford Mum said...

Wow. I want to read this, and I know my best friend, who loves jazz and lives in Europe, will love it too.

Louis Armstrong also features in Roddy Doyle's "Oh Play that Thing" which is set in the States during the 1920s.

Peter S. said...

Hello, Stepford Mum! I love Roddy Doyle! I'll check out that story!