Wednesday, January 25, 2017

My View Of Half Blood Blues By Esi Edugyan


Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan

Finished it. 

My view. 

Spoilers everywhere:

Chip near the end of Half Blood Blues says-I paraphrase crudely from memory-on the worth of jazz, "The world is all accident but through playing jazz we give accident order, meaning and purpose." Contingency operates everywhere in this novel, from how the Kid is found by Butterstein, to how the single recorded track of the Kid's playing is kept, secreted away, then found--"a ghost story," recounts Sid, to how Sid is there when the Kid's exit papers arrive, and to so much else. 

But for ever how much circumstances operate, order and meaning come through not just by playing jazz, but by how people are where they find themselves, how they act towards each other, how they do right and how they do wrong. These contingent circumstances for musicians include how some are just plain born geniuses like Louis Armstrong or the Kid and maybe Chip and how some can never be better than mediocre, than being the support, the journeymen as is Sid, trapped by and bitter about it too, caught intolerably in his own limitations. 

And so while the novel is set in significant particular times, 1939/1940, various years before 1939, and 1992-the novel's present, and and in significant particular places, namely Baltimore, Berlin, Paris and latterly Poland, and while setting and place are of the greatest importance, even more important is how people act in them. 

While some may say the central character is the Kid, I don't think so. I argue the central character is the narrator Sid Griffiths, the bassist, the mediocrity, the dispensable supporting musician, the never-better-than journeyman player. The novel, after all, is completely set in his consciousness and memory, as he reconstructs how everything has affected him. In the book, finally everything comes back to him. And so the core of Half Blood Blues involves how Sid conducts himself in his times and places in the circumstances, as contingencies add up to form the particularities of his worlds, the world of 1939/40 and of 1992. While it stands fair to say the novel is about many things, race, love, music, the play of accident, friendship, other things, what Sid does as a matter of right and wrong, why he does it, the meaning and consequences of his actions are, I think, what Half Blood Blues is centrally about. In that way, we might say it's centrally a kind of fictional character study of a particular man in particular and connected times and places

For me, there's no gainsaying why Sid does what he does in hiding the Kid's late-arriving exit papers out of German occupied Paris and then lying to Delilah about it and never at the time or after coming clean about it. He partly rationalizes to himself that he hid the papers so that the remnants of the band can finish a satisfactory recording of Half Blood Blues. But that's not it all. That's only a pretext for his malevolence driven by his jealousy over Delilah's rejecting him for the Kid, his jealously at the Kid's effortless musical genius, his bitterness at Louis Armstrong cutting him out of recording and his being driven by his inveterate rage at and dissatisfaction with his failed self. 

This becomes clear, on reflection, when we consider the early scene in the Bug's cafe when the Germans take the Kid away and Sid positions himself to watch impotently what happens without stepping up to help. In the documentary, Chip is right about Sid's treachery and moral responsibility for it happening but wrong about what precisely comprises Sid's fault. It's not so much that Sid didn't then try to lend a helping hand, an impotence that might be understandable and forgivable but for the the preexisting malevolence in hiding the papers and letting the Kid go out without them. 

Then, what a little reflection tells us is that when the Germans were taking the Kid away because he was without papers, Sid could have intervened to explain that the papers existed and he could take the Germans to them or bring them to the Germans. Chip of course couldn't know that; so the particulars and emphasis in his indictment of Sid in the documentary are wrong, but Chip is all too right in the spirit and larger meaning of his blaming Sid for the Kid's bad end. 

In the final and lovely scenes in 1992 in Poland with Chip and Sid together with the previously thought-dead Hiero, now to be called Thomas in emblem of his new post war life, I, contrary to others, see no reconciliation or forgiveness a such. I see, rather, a helplessly tragic passivity borne of the resignation and calm that withering old age brings Thomas, rooted in the realization that all the storms and egregiousness of the past finally don't matter because it's all so long ago and nothing can be done about it. Death itself is what is at hand. 

This is the calm, wise, tragic perspective of Thomas, indifferently resigned now to having been malevolently cheated of the fullness in music and perhaps worldly success his genius promised his life. Sid is as hesitant, halting, weak, paralyzed and tormented at the end of the novel as has has been throughout it. There is no expiation, only the beneficent conferral of some partial comfort in knowing that Thomas now knows and is too frail, too old, too resigned, too blind and too beaten down to care. For me, though, Thomas's resignation notwithstanding, Sid's actions form a Scarlet Letter mark that forever condemns him to our unremittingly harsh judgment. In the end, the novel is both unforgiving and tragic

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