"Berlin, 1939. The Hot-Time Swingers, a popular German American jazz band, have been forbidden to play live because the Nazis have banned their 'degenerate music.' After escaping to Paris, where they meet Louis Armstrong, the band's brilliant young trumpet-player, Hieronymus Falk, is arrested in a café by the Gestapo. It is June 1940. He is never heard from again. He is twenty years old, a German citizen. And he is black. Berlin, 1992. Falk, now a jazz legend, is the subject of a celebratory documentary. Two of the original Hot-Time Swingers American band members, Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones, are invited to attend the film's premier in Berlin. As they return to the landscape of their past friendships, rivalries, loves and betrayals, Sid, the only witness to Falk's disappearance who has always refused to speak about what happened, is forced to break his silence. Sid recreates the lost world of Berlin's pre-war smoky bars, and the salons of Paris, telling his vibrant and suspenseful story in German American slang. Half-Blood Blues is a novel about music and race, love and loyalty, and marks the arrival of an extraordinarily 'gifted storyteller' (The Toronto Star)"--
Esi Edugyan’s Booker nominated novel, Half-Blood Blues, is historical fiction which centers around the world of jazz during the years of World War II. Narrated by Sid in a rich dialect of American slang, it moves back and forth from 1939 to 1992, gradually uncovering the complex and conflicting relationships of the characters. Sid and Chip have an uneasy yet lasting friendship which is marred by the day Hiero disappeared. The dialogue between the men is one of mockery and jesting, and is filled with slang which was, at first, a bit distracting for me. The narrative is a reconstruction of a period in time, filled with musical references which evoke a sense of place.
Delilah is the spark which ignites the tension in the novel – a beautiful woman with a seductive personality who has the power to divide loyalties. Edugyan is quite skilled at character development, giving readers a deep look into the lives of her conflicted characters through the unreliable narration of Sid.
Edugyan tackles the themes of racism, antisemitism, betrayal, and love against the backdrop of the Jazz era in Germany. She is adept at conveying a sense of place through gorgeous descriptive phrasing. As Sid and Chip travel to Poland in 1992 in search of Hiero, they climb aboard a bus “yellow as a toilet inside, the seats foamless and reeking of old piss.”
No sooner had we sat down than the driver got out, banged shut all the baggage doors, and come back on board glowering. He yelled some words in Polish, but no one seemed to pay no attention. Then he sat down, pulled out some levers, started the old engine with a roar, snapped his dusty window open. The brakes groaned, the axles hissing under us like asps. And then there was a sound like an enormous pressure releasing, and that huge rusted bus started shuddering on its big tires, rolling slowly out into the dead road. – from Half-Blood Blues -
Despite its strengths, the novel is not without its faults. I found the pacing very slow in spots – surprisingly during the part of the book set in 1939 which I thought would have been the most intriguing. Instead, I found myself most enjoying the narrative with Sid and Chip as old men. Although there is supposed to be some mystery to what exactly happened in Paris and with Hiero, I found the tension in the plot to be a bit underwhelming. The use of dialect in the novel is both a strength and a weakness. Early on, I struggled to stay in the story, battling the unfamiliar jargon and slang. Later, I recognized this vernacular as an effective device to understand the characters better. Still, I think the use of language in the book may be difficult for some readers.
There is no doubt that Edugyan can write. Half-Blood Blues is a laudable and quite literary effort that is really about relationships and human flaws. Edugyan uses a volatile time in history as a backdrop to her characters which will appeal to readers of historical fiction who also appreciate literary fiction.
There are three storylines here, all of which blend together very well. First, In Berlin in 1939, Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones are members of a jazz group the Hot Time Swingers. Like many African-American jazz musicians of the time, Griffiths and Jones had come to Europe to get out from under the severity of Jim Crow in the U.S., and had done well for themselves. The jazz group had a large following there in the steamy, smoky cabaret life, largely due to a highly-talented young jazz trumpeter named Hieronymous (Hiero) Falk. Hiero was a "Mischling," son of a white woman from the Rhineland who had been raped by an African soldier. When Hitler retook the Rhineland, children like Hiero were labeled as "stateless," and a "cultural stain," even though they were German citizens. The Hot Time Swingers soon discovered that after the Nazis came down on jazz as "degenerate" music, it became very dangerous to play this kind of music in public:
" Jazz. Here in Germany it became something worse than a virus. We was all of us damn fleas, us Negroes and Jews and low-life hoodlums, set on playing that vulgar racket, seducing sweet blond kids into corruption and sex. It wasn't a music, it wasn't a fad. It was a plague sent out by the dread black hordes, engineered by the Jews. Us Negroes, see, we was only half to blame -- we just can't help it. Savages just got a natural feel for filthy rhythms, no self-control to speak of. But the Jews, brother, now they cooked up this jungle music on purpose. All part of their master plan to weaken Aryan youth, corrupt its janes, dilute its bloodstreams."
Going underground, the group took refuge in the Hound Club, which had been shut down by the Nazis for its "degenerate sympathies." The situation is pretty bad by the time Delilah Brown, friend of Louis Armstrong, arrives from Paris and convinces the group that they need to get out of Germany and go to France, where Armstrong was looking forward to meeting them. This begins the second storyline, when eventually Chip, Sid and Hiero make their way to Paris, just ahead of the Nazis, "the boots," who will soon be invading France. There they meet Louis Armstrong, who is quite taken with Hiero's amazing talent. After it becomes clear that the Nazis will soon be entering Paris, the US government tells all non-essential Americans to get out of France and Armstrong leaves. Chip, Sid and Hiero once again go into hiding, and begin a series of recordings, with Hiero in the lead, cutting disc after disc, constantly interrupted by Hiero's frustration over their imperfections. Sid steals one of these discs, hiding it away, and he and the others are left waiting for their exit visas. It is at this time that tragedy befalls Hiero, and he is arrested. Flash forward to 1992, the third segment of this novel. A documentary about the life of the hitherto unknown life and talent of Hiero, whose work has recently been rediscovered, is about to be premiered in Berlin, and Sid and Chip are about to go back after all of this time.
There are some good moments in the novel -- the author's descriptions of the jazz life in Berlin before the Nazis are well done, the stressful atmosphere while the group is in hiding is believable, and the story of the escape from Germany is a bit on the exciting side. And she is quite good at seaming the three strands of the story together to make one cohesive whole. But considering the material listed at the back of the book from which she had ample opportunity to draw together a story of black people during the Nazi period, there's really no depth in this area in the novel, nor are their stories well illustrated here or made representative of through the character of Hiero, much to my great disappointment. A scholar alludes to the fate of both African-Americans caught in Paris and to these "stateless" people as part of the documentary, but as an historian, not as a "Mischling" himself. I thought once things got rolling I'd be seeing more of Hiero's story both pre- and post-arrest, a more personally-driven account. I think the author missed a great and unique opportunity here by not making Hiero more of the centerpiece of her story rather than Sid, whose story focuses more on his on-again/off-again relationship with Chip, his infatuation with Delilah, his own selfish desires, and his petty jealousies. I'd categorize this book as a novel of missed opportunity. Maybe one day, someone will write the book I thought this was going to be. I'll guess I'll just have to keep waiting.
By 1939 the band is no longer allowed to perform in Berlin, and the mostly non-Aryan band members find themselves unable to find work. Rescue comes in the form of Delilah Brown, a stunning singer who has been sent from Paris to Berlin by Louis Armstrong to recruit the boys to play in his band. Sid is enraptured by Delilah, but he becomes jealous when she seems to pay more attention to the young Hiero. As the boys are deciding whether or not to go to Paris they find themselves in even more danger, as they fall afoul of local Gestapo agents. They and Delilah are forced undercover, to avoid deportation to concentration camps, as the opportunity to escape progressively dims.
Half Blood Blues was a tedious and painful book to read, due to its use of black vernacular throughout the characters' dialogue and Sid's narration, the often inane and sometimes juvenile conversations between the band members, and the petty jealousies that Sid and Chip displayed throughout the book. The descriptions of the characters' troubles in Berlin and harrowing escape to Paris were gripping, but those were the only portions that I enjoyed. I was very interested in this story of black jazz musicians in Germany and Europe preceding and during World War II, but this was another disappointing novel, one that should never have been included in this year's Booker Prize longlist.
Half-Blood Blues is narrated by Sidney Griffith, an African-American from Baltimore, who came to Europe with his old friend Chip Jones to seek out a career in Germany’s blossoming jazz scene. Here they met Hieronymous Falk, a half-black German born to a white mother and Senegalese soldier, part of the French army occupying the Rhineland. In the novel’s opening scene, which takes place in occupied Paris in 1940, Sid bears witness to the Nazis hauling Hiero away – and never sees him again.
The book jumps back and forth in chronology, beginning with this scene and then returning to Berlin the previous year, and intersparsed with flashbacks to Sid and Chip’s childhood, and scenes set in 1992 when the two friends – now old and grumpy men – return to Europe to find out what became of Hiero. Most of the novel’s more interesting parts are set in 1939 and 1940, particularly the band’s flight from Germany and their short-lived life in Paris.
This was a very difficult book to get into. This is largely due, I think, to Sid’s first-person narration, which Edugyan renders in phoenetic black slang. At the same time she tries to slip in typical literary metaphors and descriptions, which don’t quite gel with the words of a black jazz musician:
Even awake I was sleeping. Dumped in a foreign city, where I ain’t known hardly a soul, the language a constant door in my face. It weighed on me, the loneliness, the jealousy. I took to avoiding Delilah when I could, eating in strange cafes no gate like to turn up in. I blocked the kid out entire. I ain’t certain he even notice.
The streets of Paris turned white as mould under the cold blare of gas lamps.
Edugyan is certainly capable of some choice turns of phrase, however, like when she describes the swastika as a “dancing black spider” or a bad memory as “a burn in my mind, a darkness at the edge of my thoughts.” It’s a testament to her skills that she could make this kind of language work with her chosen narrative gimmick at all, and towards the end of the novel I had grown accustomed to it. But it was disconcerting for at least the entire first half.
The other reason I found it difficult to get into – aside from my own disinterest in the jazz period – was that the premise didn’t seem to have been executed quite right. Maybe that’s the fault of my own expectations, but there’s surprisingly little in Half-Blood Blues about Nazi persecution of the blacks – or, for that matter, anyone. They only seem like a tangible threat after the war begins and the army is advancing on Paris (easily the best stretch of the novel). Half-Blood Blues is more of a character drama with Nazi Germany as a backdrop – and I can’t fault that, I suppose, given that it’s not half-bad. The novel largely revolves around Hiero’s fate and to what extent Sid was responsible for it. It’s a novel about rivalry and jealousy, and how much more horrible they are when the rival you are jealous of is a close friend and loved one. Sid is well-developed enough as a sympathetic character that even when he does something truly monstrous and selfish you can’t help but feel sorry for him.
This is clearly a novel born out of a passion, the author indulging in her desire to explore the niche period of black German jazz musicians. I can see it taking a different track to what many people might expect, but it’s a good book, and a better one than we should have any right to expect from such an odd subject matter.
Not good enough, alas, to make the shortlist. Half-Blood Blues is an ultimately uneven novel, taking far too long to get moving and having a somewhat truncated emotional resolution. Certainly deserving of its place on the longlist, but not to progress any further. (Although, for the record, still a superior book to The Stranger’s Child.)
The book is told from the viewpoint of Sid Griffiths, the bass player for an up-and-coming jazz band, The Hot-Time Swingers, who were playing in jazz clubs throughout Berlin. Jazz was hot in pre-World War II Germany, but when Hitler came to power, he considered the music to be "degenerate." This left Sid and his band mates, namely his boyhood friend, Chip, and a black German horn player, Hiero, out of work. The 1939 sections of the story center around the band mates' escape from Germany and their brief time together in Paris.
Fast forward more than 50 years, and the story focuses on elder Sid and Chip, who are returning to Germany for a jazz festival in Hiero's honor. Sid watched Hiero get arrested in Paris, and he assumed Hiero died, but Chip has information that will test Sid's belief. Once they arrive in Berlin, they decide to travel to Poland to learn what happened to Hiero.
Many reviewers found Half Blood Blues to be slow-paced. However, I felt the complete opposite: I was completely riveted by the story, turning pages late into the night. This may be the result of my insatiable curiosity about World War II history, but I have to think that Edugyan's superb writing style also played a part. Another common complaint was the jargon used throughout the dialogues: it was a blend of black vernacular mixed in with 1940's slang. Germans were "boots," women were "janes." It did not bother me too much, but I understand where these critiques are coming from.
For me, Half Blood Blues was the complete package: gripping, humanistic, real. I am pleased that Edugyan has been short listed for the 2012 Orange Prize, and I hope lovers of literary and historical fiction will find their way to this book.
The novel gracefully swerves from Paris, to Berlin, to present-day United States, as Sid tells the story both from an immediate perspective, and from the future, looking back. It’s written in a rhythmic, lyrical jazz slang that reads almost like poetry. The prose is at times sharp and laugh-out-loud witty, and at other times raw and chilling. After about 30 pages, I was so hooked on the story I found it difficult to put the book down.
Esi Edugyan has that special something that allows the reader to live in the historical context she’s created, right along with her wonderfully human, flawed characters. She shines a light on what it would be like to live in a world turned upside-down by hate, and explores what the average person would do when caught in an impossible situation in which death could be around every corner. Through it all the musicians continue to cling to their music, the one thing that still makes sense when nothing else does.
This is not a novel where everything is wrapped up tidy and neat. It leaves you wondering, thinking, and somewhat haunted by the characters and their story. Edugyan is an extraordinarily gifted writer with a very unique style and voice. Very highly recommended.
Winner, 2012 Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize
Shortlist, 2011 Man Booker Prize
Shortlist, 2012 Orange Prize
Shortlist, 2011 Governor General’s Award
“It’s like that, I guess, when the past come to collect what you owe.”
Amazing, just look at all those wins and nominations. I’m happy for any author that gets that much recognition!
Edugyan’s story is very unique. Black jazz musicians in pre-War World II Germany and France? You’ve got to expect that that didn’t go very well. A story of prejudice, acceptance, betrayal, and friendship, the dichotomies really stood out. I did enjoy the story, but I was tripped up at times with the slang (though I have no doubt it was very close to authentic). Her descriptions of her characters, especially Delilah and Hiero, were very striking. I could easily imagine how they looked and acted. The scene at the end in Paris was also vivid, reminding me a bit of Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise.
My only real problem with the book was that whenever I put it down, I wasn’t as eager to get back to it as some others I had been reading recently. Not that all the books I read have to ‘zip along’ (ha! – Booker inside joke), but I would hope that I would be drawn in to continue to the end. I was, just not at the level I was expecting.
This was the only Man Booker shortlist title I didn’t read last year because I got it in the mail too late. Where does it fall with those titles? I’ll put it 5th, above Jamrach’s Menagerie. It was also 5th in my Orange shortlist reading, above Song of Achilles.
I would definitely read another by Edugyan at some point.
2011, 352 pp.
Esi Edugyan tells the compelling story of a group of black jazz musicians from various parts of the world stuck in Berlin (and later Paris) during World War II. I am by NO means a history lover, but this fictionalized account opened my eyes to a side of WWII that I had never imagined. The WWII portion of the tale is but one of the time lines the author uses. She also tells the story of the musicians in their older years; all with a focus on betrayal, friendship, memory, secrets, love, etc. **That is all I will say about the plot -- to avoid spoilers.
I have seen some comments about difficulty in reading the dialects of the narrator -- reminiscent of some comments about reading "The Help." I found the opposite true for me, however. The dialect of Sid and the other characters helped paint a very clear picture of each person in the story. Because of the writing I could almost hear each character's voice.
This novel was recently long listed for the "Orange Prize" for fiction. Like some other "oranges", the end left unanswered questions hanging that I wish had been resolved. But, alas... methinks that is why these books are nominated :)
Sadly the writing style, designed to replicate the jazz speak of the narrator, bass play Sidney Griffith, became merely exasperating. This book was short listed for the 2011 Booker Prize which suggests that last year must have been a rather thin time for literary fiction!
Ms. Edugyan has given us a page-turner of a story. She alternates in time between 1939-40 and 1992, and makes expert use of that technique. I knew the outcomes of some plot elements and gained a deeper appreciation as I learned what was behind them. Other parts of the story remained a mystery until the end. This all contributed to making the story so intriguing!
I loved the character of the narrator, Sid, and what his story says about friendship, loyalty and the longing to be part of something beautiful and lasting.
The story is set both in the 1940s in Berlin and Paris as the Trio try to stay one step ahead of Hitler's ever advancing army but also in the 1990s in a newly reunited Germany at a concert in Hiero's honour. At the heart of the story is the secret Sid harbours as to how Hiero's fate was sealed.
I didn't expect to enjoy this book and it starts slowly but it is a tale that draws you in. Literary takes on music rarely seem to work but Edugyan is able to render the atmosphere of 1940s jazz, the language of the trio and banter between them feels authentic. The plot is a little weak to sustain the length and the potentially most interesting of the characters, Hiero, is the least well developed but by the end of the book they seem like minor complaints as is the rather random and quite pointless inclusion of Louis Armstrong who makes an appearance. A more major complaint on my behalf is that the list price for this trade paperback is $24.95 which seems like daylight robbery especially since the text is littered with typos and printing errors; if you're going to charge that much then at least earn it with some better proofreading. However I shall not hold the publisher's problems against the author.
In 1992, Sid, aged 83 and living in Baltimore, is persuaded by Chip to travel to Europe to attend the premiere of a film about Hiero. This trip forces Sid to re-examine the events that led to Hiero's arrest by the Gestapo and his incarceration in a concentration camp.
It soon becomes clear that Sid is not the most reliable of narrators. There is certainly naivete in his less than intense concern for what is happening in Germany; the public persecution of the Jews, the Nazi rallies and general state thuggery receive scant mention. Even a slightly perceptive reader will soon suspect that Sid's version of events cannot be totally trusted. His view of Hiero is jaundiced since he is jealous of his talent and his bond with Delilah Brown, a confidant of Louis Armstrong for whom the trio auditions. Sid's selfishness also makes it difficult for the reader to like him.
The diction is somewhat problematic. Sid narrates using jazz vernacular and period slang. Sid refers to his bass as an axe; people don't walk - they ankle. The repeated use of the article "a" when "an" would be appropriate, I found disconcerting. The word "hell" makes countless appearances in both Sid's dialogue and thoughts. That repetition becomes tiresome despite its purposefulness in developing theme (rather too obviously) and Sid's youthful character, especially when contrasted with his facility with literary metaphors in his mature years.
The publicity for the novel emphasizes that it details the black experience in Nazi Germany, and the book does indeed provide a history lesson. Racism is shown to be an international issue. The impact of the lesson would be more powerful, however, if Hiero's story were developed in more depth. There are many gaps and unexplained mysteries about his past, the revelation of which could have been instructive in terms of theme. As is, the theme that comes across most strongly is that ambition and jealousy can subvert the better qualities in human nature and lead to the betrayal of love and friendship.
This novel has been shortlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize but I suspect both awards will bypass this nominee.
The settings of the book are interesting and fresh; the plotting a tad predictable and the characterisation a bit thin - Sid is a bit player acting as narrator, and his voice is inconsistent, veering in and out of southern dialect - and the other characters play their parts without leaping off the page. But the book is very readable and engaging, even if it doesn't deliver the knock out emotional punch its subject matter promises.
I wonder whether writing the dialogues in 1930s black American English was really necessary, and it felt very annoying at first although it was meant to convey a sense of time and place. I did get used to it and even grew a kind of fondness for the style.
Sid & Chip, when together are likeable, enjoyable characters and Esi Edugyan uses their relationship and shapes personalities in a way that balances out with the sense of impending doom throughout the story.
The story, unfortunately is rather unconvincing. It is historically inaccurate: why should it be such a struggle for American citizens do get out of Paris when it’s only early 1940?
-What really made Sid so hopelessly in love with Delilah?
-Barely any insight into the characters’ inner thoughts: all the emotions are given through the dialogues.
-It is Difficult to believe that Sid would risk his friend’s life and his own reputation by hiding Hiero’s visa just for the sake of finishing recording a disc…
Sid is a miserable person all along: he lost his love and friends through his jealousy and his self-esteem through his betrayals which makes him a fairly despicable character, only just saved by the constant presence at his side of his pal Chip.
Weak character development, unclear motives and not enough true feelings, a story with little to tell although an easy and not unpleasant read.
Sid and Chip grew up in Baltimore a few blocks from each other. Chip started playing drums at an early age and Sid learned to play stand-up bass. The two of them ended up playing in a jazz band in Berlin and it was a pretty good life before the Nazis decided jazz was decadent. Their trumpeter was Hiero Falk, a young black German. Hiero (or the Kid) is brilliant. He could be the next Louis Armstrong. In fact, Louis Armstrong sent his assistant, Delilah, to Berlin to ask the band to come to Paris to play with him. As we learn right at the beginning of the book Hiero and Sid did make it to Paris but one morning Hiero got picked up by the Nazis. He was sent to a concentration camp and was never heard from again. Until, that is, a filmmaker decided to make a documentary about Hiero and premiered it in Berlin. Then Chip got a letter from Hiero and he asked Chip to come to his home in Poland.
That's the bare bones of the story but the book is so much more. We live through the time the band has to hide in a jazz club because the Nazis were looking for them. My heart was in my mouth when they crossed the border into France. The description of the crowds streaming out of Paris as the Germans entered put me right there in that mass of humanity. I felt like the bus trip across Poland would never end because I so much wanted to know what awaited them at the end. And yet, I deliberately slowed down my reading of the last 20 pages because I really didn't want the book to end. Edugyan writes so beautifully and powerfully. I know she is not old enough to have lived through the times in the book but she writes like she did.
The book truly deserves all the attention it has received. I think I may be buying a copy for a Christmas present.
I can’t say I really connected with the characters. I wanted everything to turn out right for Sid but only because I felt sorry for him.
I found the ending was a little abrupt too, especially as they rest of the novel looked to that pont, I just felt it could be expanded upon.
Would I recommend it? Yes I suppose so but I don’t think it’s really award winning material, just a decent read.
Like complex music, this novel might require another listen before the reader can make sense of what really happened to the rising young star in the group. I'd also like to learn more about the horrifying human zoo in Hamburg, and about Louis Armstrong's presence in France in those volatile years.
Cutting between 1940 and 1992, Half-Blood Blues is a story of race, friendship, secrets, and betrayal. Showing a side of World War II not often written about—that is, the story of the other, non-Jewish ethnic groups persecuted by the Reich—it is fascinating and textured.
Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones have known each other forever. The two grew up together in Baltimore where they honed their musical talents to so a high level - Sid on base and Chip on drums - that they would become popular in Berlin as the core of a jazz band they called the Hot-Time Swingers. But they really hit the big time when they add trumpeter Hieronymous Falk to the mix. Hiero, a mixed-race German, is so special a talent that he catches the attention of one Louis Armstrong - who invites the band to join him in Paris to cut a record.
The tough decision to shut things down in Berlin is made easy for the band when Hitler labels jazz as “degenerate music” and bans public performances of it. When the Hot Swingers, including its German members, realize that more than their mere livelihood is at stake, the scramble is on to find papers good enough to get them across the border and on their way to Paris. Little do they know, that Hitler’s army is not all that far behind them.
Sid Griffiths, the book’s narrator, tells this intriguing story from the perspective of just over fifty years in the future. Sid and Chip are old men living in 1992 Baltimore with plans to attend the imminent Berlin debut of a documentary film honoring the now legendary jazz trumpeter Hiero Falk. Hiero, caught in a Nazi roundup of “undesirables,” has not been heard from since the day of his arrest and is presumed to have died in a Nazi death camp. The mystery surrounding his end, details of which only Sid knows, have turned Hiero into the kind of musical legend that only dying young can do for a musician.
But Sid knows the whole story, and even though the truth is still eating at his soul, he does not really expect, or want, to go public with it. Surprise, surprise, Sid.
Esi Edugyan has Sid speak in the vernacular of jazz musicians of the thirties. While this initially slows the reader down, once the speech pattern becomes familiar, this technique gives Half-Blood Blues a feeling of authenticity it otherwise would not have had. This does, however, bring me to my first “quibble.” When Sid is thinking out loud for the reader, he sounds nothing like he does in conversation with his friends - even in 1992 – and that is sometimes a little jarring to the reader’s ear.
But more importantly, the book’s ending does not quite measure up to the hugely dramatic build-up leading to it. Perhaps unrealistically, I was hoping for more. I did very much enjoy this one, and I suspect that I will be thinking about it for a good while, so if you like WWII history from a civilian point-of-view, you will likely love Half-Blood Blues. Esi Edugyan is most certainly a talent to watch.
Rated at: 4.0