The Complications of Definition

The day after Half-Blood Blues won the Giller Prize, the copy I had requested from the library finally came in. (I put it on hold when it was short-listed for the Booker.) Good timing there. I was pretty surprised Edugyan won the Giller, since I figured Ondaatje had a lock on it, just by existing. A lovely surprise though, and good on the jury for going with—what was to me—something unexpected. Among the Twittering class, it seemed The Antagonist was the favourite for the Giller. It took me while to get into The Anatagonist, but I felt it really came together well in the last 30 or so pages, and totally justified anything I'd tripped up on before. Anyway, this post isn't about the Giller or Lynn Coady (who has a really great Twitter presence, by the way).

It's can be tough to write about music.* How do you describe it? How can you make a reader understand what the music sounds like, why it sounds that way? Edugyan is such a good writer, that she’s able to describe the technical details of playing jazz in a lyrical (see what I did thar?) way:
Kid wasn't even hardly listening, it seemed. Handling his horn with an unexpected looseness, with a almost slack hand, he coaxed a strange little groan from his brass. Like there was this trapped panic, this barely held-in chaos, and Heiro hisself was the lid.
I pulled back some as he come in, fearing we was going to overpower him in that narrow closet. But he just soften it down with me, blurr it up. Then he blast out one pure, brilliant note, and I thought, my god.

Edugyan not only describes the playing, and the piece, but the emotions embedded in it. Half-Blood Blues is the story of a piece of music, how that piece came to be, and who the people were that created it: Sid, the narrator of the novel and bass-player; Chip, his oldest friend and extremely talented percussionist; and Heiro, a prodigious horn player.
It wasn't true blues, sure, ain't got the right chord structure, but the kid ain't cared none. "Blues," he said, coughing roughly, "blue wasn't never bout the chords."
It has that same feeling of heat and sadness. I'm not going to pretend to be a jazz (or blues!) scholar or aficionado, I just know the way certain pieces, and artists, make me feel. Edugyan’s characters talk about jazz in that way, in the feeling. They risk their lives, they risk each other's lives, to capture that feeling perfectly onto a record. Edugyen captures the feeling perfectly on paper.
I might have been crying. It was the sounds of something growing a crust, some watery thing finally gelling. The very sound age, of growing older, of adolescent rage being tempered by a man's heart.

Edugyan does an amazing job of telling the story of Black jazz musicians in Europe at the outbreak of war, and it’s important that they’re not all American, so as to give lie to the notion of one monolithic “Black experience.” Half-Blood Blues is a thoughtful piece on how “race” is a very complicated concept. The “half-blood” refers to many of the characters in the novel. Almost no one is simply Black (and that’s essentially true of any population in Europe or North America)—if you take that as a concept of skin rather than a cultural one. Though, of course, it's cultural too. The complexities of a Black identity are in direct juxtaposition to the pure-blood Aryan movement happening in Germany during the novel. Wrapped up in how Blackness is experienced, there are differing levels of privilege, illustrated here within the microcosm of the band: Sid’s oldest and closest friend, Chip, does extremely well for himself later in life; Louis Armstrong is – by way of his fame – able to escape the worst of the war, and one of the characters bitterly remarks that everything is okay “as long as he gets out.” Edugyan educates the reader, through the character of Hieronymous Falk, about the Mischling: German children born of white mothers and African soldier fathers.
He was a Mischling, a half-breed, but so dark no soul ever like to guess his mama a white Rhinelander. Hell, his skin glistened like pure oil. But he was German-born, sure. And if his face wasn't of the Fatherland, just bout everything else bout him rooted him there right good. And add to this fact that he didn't have no identity papers right now--well, let's just say wasn't no cakewalk for him
In a documentary made fifty years later about Heiro, the band's first manager elucidates:
"Life for black people under the Third Reich," he said through his nose, "was extremely contradictory. This is because there were so many different types of black people, and their treatment depended on what group they belonged to. [...] Hieronymous Falk," he went on, "now, he belonged to a rarer group. He was what back then was called a 'Rhineland Bastard.'
France sent in African soldiers from French colonial countries after WWI to occupy the Rhineland.
So even after the soldiers were sent home, and Hitler re-occupied the Rhineland, these children were seen as part of a significant insult to Germany. A cultural stain.
Heiro has the worst of all worlds. He is German, but is permanent reminder to all that see him of their defeat in WWI (and this is of course more and more dangerous as the years go on, and Nationalism rises). He’s denied citizenship under Hitler, but when he’s in soon-to-be occupied Paris, he’s cautioned against speaking in public. Heiro is German, he’s the enemy, he represents the invaders, even though his country of origin refuses to grant him a national identity. Heiro is completely stateless and lost. It’s heartbreaking. And it gets worse.
While in Hamburg, Heiro takes Sid to a zoo to show him a specific exhibit.
Black folk. Barefoot, dressed in rags and bones. And despite all the mud, despite the filth and the flies, their skin looked weirdly shiny. All silvery black, like the zookeepers kept them buffed up like onyx.
A ache come into my chest. "They keep people here?"
"This is just the African exhibit," Heiro muttered. "They got one for Samoans, for Esquimaux." He was trying to smile, like it ain't so horrifying. Or like it so horrifying, it funny. But the smile ain't reached his eyes.
"A human zoo," I mumbled. "Shit." I was just too damn astonished to say anything else.
It’s a difficult passage, and I wrestle with it. Is it that Germany saw all non-Aryans as animals? That seems too simplistic a reading. I keep feeling as if it’s just another level that Edugyan has placed on the hierarchy. By accident of birth, Heiro is considered more human than those born in Africa. Sid and Chip have US have citizenship, though would be subject to Jim Crow laws in many parts of the country. How high you are on the ladder depends, always, on someone under you. It’s something most of the characters are forced to engage with, and in my mind, it’s what drives Sid’s antagonist feelings towards Heiro. Sid is simply a better-than-most musician, and he resents Heiro’s talent. He wants take Heiro down a rung, not realizing Heiro feels – probably is – closer in situation to the caged Africans than his American bandmates.

I really loved Half-Blood Blues. It doesn't hurt that I just went to Paris a couple months ago, so the city in which most of the action takes place was still fresh in my mind**. I think I said something earlier in the year (not specifically about Half-Blood) about "Nazi books" and how I'm a little worn out on them. Yet, authors keep coming up with new stories to tell, and new ways of looking at WWII. Half-Blood Blues is really, really sad, and beautiful, and it only became more so as it went on. So sad, that I didn’t want to finish, because the thing with WWII novels is you know that things are not exactly going to go well. Edugyan does relieves tension at the very beginning by telling the reader what happens to Heiro in Paris within the fist 20 pages or so, and in doing so makes the heartbreak of the journey to it ever-present.

*"Talking about music is like dancing about architecture."
**And the thing with Paris, is that it basically stopped building in the late 19th century, so other than modern cosmetic touches, it looks pretty much the same as it would have to Edugyan’s characters.
I'm not sitting here pontificating on Black identity, though. I hope I'm not, anyway. I have zero first-hand knowledge of not being white. I'm acutely aware of this and I'm trying to restrict my analysis to what is in the text only. If I have over-stepped I'm happy to be told so.

1 comment:

Steph said...

That's one thing I use to sell HBB: that it's a totally original, different perspective on the WWII story, which has mostly been about Jews and the Holocaust. And that different perspective is aside from all the excellent writing. Writing my review, I wanted to quote the whole damn book.

This was probably my favourite book of the year.