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"Jazzer, drop your axe, it's jazz police!",
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This review is from: Half Blood Blues (Paperback)Half Blood Blues carries a tremendous sense of time and place. That being - the jazz clubs of Berlin and Paris at the outbreak of World War Two, and specifically seen through the eyes of Sid Griffiths, a black American musician.
Sid narrates his story in a voice lifted straight from the old jazz records of the 1930s. Idiosyncratic, smoky and fused with a passion for music. Sid and his crew - Chip C Jones, Hieronymous Falk and the delightful Delilah - are not political beings. Sid and Chip, as Americans, look at the ongoing political developments with a certain detachment. They fear the Nazis - or "boots" as they are called - but still concentrate more on food, drink and chasing the ladies. And as Sid reminds us, life back in the US was not a bed of roses for black musicians.
The intrigue comes in the shape of the German musicians who join them. These include Paul, a Jewish pianist; Ernst, a white Aryan with a wealthy father; and Hiero, a German citizen of African heritage. Whilst the Nazis were ambivalent towards Sid and Chip, they were far less tolerant of their own nationals who chose a bohemian jazz life and positively apoplectic at the prospect of Jewish jazzers. As the band play cat and mouse with the boots, flitting across borders with false papers in the dead of night, there are opportunities for great courage - and opportunities for base betrayal. With the wine and women in play, there's mayhem.
This is set in relief by scenes set shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as a documentary maker seeks to narrate the life of Hiero. Hiero's brief life as a trumpeter had left a legacy of almost mythic proportion. Sid and Chip are invited along as bit part players. This gives them the opportunity to reunite and reflect on past deeds and it's not always pretty - old men transported back 50 years to relive their petty squabbles.
Although the narrative can be confusing at first - it's not always linear and the colloquial language does take a bit of tuning in - it gels into a wonderful, complex whole. There are moments of comedy - none more so than the ban's appearance at Ernst's father's chateau. The old man is a high ranking Nazi with pretty conservative musical tastes. He clearly doesn't approve of the jazz lifestyle, and nor does he approve of his son's choice of company. But at the same time, he is compelled to display impeccable manners as the host and he oozes a self-confidence that only a true believer could ever dare. Then there's Louis Armstrong's cameo - holed up in bed in a dingy room in Montmartre, convalescing. He is not a good patient and delightfully to the point in getting what he wants.
And finally, the ending is as powerful and weepy and you could hope.
The characters are real and deep. They have a story which exists above and beyond the Deutsches Reich setting. Their fierce loyalties and passions tell their own story, regardless of the backdrop. But the backdrop is of interest too - it tells the true story of those foreign or stateless people who found themselves caught up by the war in Europe, whose stories are often neglected by the focus on atrocities on a grander scale. This is an important novel, done very well.
Esi Edugyan is a writer of considerable talent. I wish her well for the Booker Prize 2011 and look forward to reading her other work in the future.