Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Book Review: Samhita Arni on Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Half Blood Blues
Esi Edugyan
Reviewed by Out of Print editor, Samhita Arni

It’s ironic that during the ‘Jazz Age’, many Jazz musicians, most of them of African-American origin, faced racial discrimination and had difficulties playing in their own country, and so came to perform in Europe. In Half Blood Blues, two such musicians hailing from Baltimore, Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones, find themselves in Berlin at the tail-end of the Weimar Era — the strange cultural renaissance in Germany in the interlude between the wars that gave us (among other things) Brecht, Cabaret, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich.
Half Blood Blues, in Esi Edugyan’s eponymous novel, is also the title of a song, a subversive jazz parody of the popular Nazi anthem, the ‘Horst-Wessel-Lied’, recorded in Paris by a rag-tag bunch of musicians that include Chip, Sid and Hieronymous Falk (Hiero), three musicians who are able to escape Nazi Germany, but get stuck in Vichy France during World War II. They are all black and mischlings — half-bloods.
Sid Griffiths is ‘high-yaller’, light-skinned enough to ‘pass’ as white. German Hiero is born of a German mother and an African father [troops from French African colonies were stationed in the Rhineland during the French occupation after the Great War and fathered children (the ‘Rhineland Bastards’) with German women]. Under the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, not only Jews but the few hundred mixed-race Germans like Hiero were also condemned to concentration camps and forcible sterilisation. As Paris falls to Nazis, Hiero is picked up in a cafe and disappears.
The song captures their sense of frustration, doom, desperation and melancholy — but it’s also a ‘finger’ or riposte to Nazism. But Half Blood Blues isn’t just about Sid, Chip or Hiero; there’s also Delilah, the African-American singer who is pale enough to pass , and strives to smuggle them out of Paris. The song is also a eulogy to the band’s original saxophonist, Paul, who looks like a ‘blond Aryan God’, but, ironically, is Jewish and a mischling under the Nuremberg laws. And of course, the term mischling also applies to Jazz, a hybrid music form born from the mixing of African and European music traditions.
The language in the novel reflects this theme of mixing. Characters talk like “mongrels — half-German, half-Baltimore bar slang.” Edugyan’s prose, too, is a richly textured mix of ‘bar slang’, black speech, and quaint, period terms like ‘fob.’ The result is strangely stark, pure, yet guttural. “Oh the silence,” Sidney, the narrator, observes, “A jack could grind his teeth on it.” Elsewhere, “He had that massive sound, wild and unexpected, like a thicket of flowers in a bone-dry field.”
In “Speaking in Tongues”, a wonderful essay that examines language, biracial author Zadie Smith writes about the space between voices, cultures, races and ideas. She brings up the “spectre of the traffic mulatto, tragically split…between worlds, ideas, culture and voices,” and the “horror of the middling split, the interim place.” Like Smith, Edugyan is concerned with the idea of mixing and syncretism, and suggests that categories or ideas of race and culture are problematic and complicated. But Edugyan is also concerned with history, and her novel interweaves two journeys at two crucial moments in history, 1939 and 1992. Sid, Hiero and Chip journey east as WWII breaks out, and over fifty years later, after the Berlin Wall comes down and the USSR falls, in 1992, Sid and Chip travel eastwards, into places that once lay under the iron curtain. Edugyan reminds us through this journey how, during the Cold War era, the world was divided and so much was unknown and unknowable. Hiero, Sid and Chip, are characters who slip through the cracks and, by their mischling nature, embody the problems of divided identities.
Half Blood Blues is not only a historical novel, and a story about race, but also a meditation on art and genius. It resurrects the idea of fatalism, an unpopular notion in our capitalist age that perceives fate as self-determined and believes success can be achieved through hard work. Delilah asks an important question, “Do you still call it talent, if it blooms without any kind of nurturing?”

Art becomes even more important in a fatalistic worldview. As Chip says, towards the end of the book, “The world’s damn beautiful, but it’s an accidental beauty. What we do, it’s deliberate.” Edugyan seems to suggest that the beauty we can make, when we can’t make our fate, becomes our only means of resistance, protest and sustenance. With this novel, Edugyan herself has created a thing of beauty; one of those rare novels that offer 
more on a second read.

This review first appeared in DNA

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