In Edugyan’s second novel, finalist for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, some jazz musicians find their music and lives endangered in Nazi Germany and occupied Paris.
Paris 1940. Nazis everywhere. The musicians are huddled in a shabby apartment. One of them, without papers, goes out on a reckless search for milk. Bam! He’s arrested and deported to a German camp. Edugyan (a Canadian of Ghanaian descent) has incorporated the novel’s climax in this taut opening. Just who are these guys? Two of them, the well-delineated Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones, are lifelong friends from Baltimore. Chip the drummer is black; Sid, the bass player and narrator, is fair enough to pass for white. (He refuses.) They arrived in swinging Berlin in the 1920’s and joined forces with three German players. Years later, one of the Germans discovered a jazz prodigy, Hieronymus Falk, the kid (he’s barely 20). Trumpeter Hiero fronts for the band and is the central character. He’s mixed race (African father, German mother), but it’s hard to remember he’s German when we only hear him use black American slang (overdone). He’s also a student of the classics and reads Herodotus. All this is a heavy burden for young shoulders, and it’s hard to locate the individual inside the mystique. That mystique, however, causes Louis Armstrong, in 1939, to summon Hiero and the band to Paris to cut a record. His emissary is the beautiful, light-skinned singer Delilah, with whom Sid falls disastrously in love. Another disaster ensues when he messes up at the recording session; but Hiero soars, leading Satchmo to call him Little Louis. There is some sag in the second (Parisian) half, as Sid stews in self-pity and jealousy of Hiero, before the latter’s deportation. A coda, awkwardly interpolated, finds Sid and Chip in Berlin in 1992, where shocking allegations in a documentary on Hiero test their friendship.
A memorable evocation of the defiant thrill of jazz at a terrible time.