By Esi Edugyan
Thomas Allen Publishers
This book is on the short-list for the Giller prize, and no wonder.
It is one of those rare books that pulls you in from the first line. Esi Edugyan has a wonderful clear way of writing, and a good story to tell.
The story is of five jazz musicians in Berlin in 1939. Their world is falling apart. Where there used to be streets full of clubs featuring Jazz, now everything is shuttered and dark. The Nazi’s don’t like jazz players, they don’t like black people, they don’t like homosexuals, and they especially don’t like Jews. This little jazz group is guilty on several counts. They are holed up in a darkened theatre, afraid to go out into the streets, drinking rot-gut and lamenting their fate.
Along comes a lady named Delilah, who says she is connected with Louis Armstrong, and she wants these boys to go to Paris and show Louis their stuff. This “stuff” is pretty good, because they have, in their group, a young man named Hiero, who plays horn like an angel. Hiero is German, and he speaks German, but he’s picked up the “talk’ of the other musicians. In a normal world (one not on the brink of war) he’d be on his way up, but he’s only 19 and going to Paris to play for Louis, would be as likely as going to the moon; these boys don’t have any travel documents.
The narrator of this yarn is the bass player named Sid, an American from Baltimore. He and fellow American Chip Jones, percussionist are slightly safer in Berlin than the others, because of their nationality. Sid’s voice and jazz talk holds this story together, though he often shows himself to be weak and jealous of the others.
Some of them do make it to Paris, find an abandoned studio and work hard to cut a wax disc, and they wait to see Louis. And wait and wait. Most of the discs they make, though pretty good, are destroyed by Hiero (called the Kid by the others) because his standards are very high. Now the story jumps to Berlin 1992 the players that have survived are old guys.
Jazz players are not usually health nuts, and these guys are pretty used up.
Hiero Falk has become famous, in absentia, through discovered recordings, but he was captured by the Nazi’s, found to be “stateless” and sent to a Nazi prison camp.
What are the chances that a young black man survived that?
The scenes, in Berlin and in Paris as that city falls to the Nazi’s are heart wrenching, as families try to escape the marching army.
When the Nazi’s arrive these jazz boys are not a lot safer in Paris than they were in Berlin. Louis has done what any one with means would do, and headed for home.
This is the authors second book. She also wrote The Second Life of Samuel Tyne.
Peggy Freeman is a freelance writer living in Red Deer.