Tag Archives: Berlin

Half Blood Blues – Esi Edugyan

I am lucky to belong to a bookclub made up of bright, intelligent, well-informed friends.  We often have what I think are erudite conversations about the books we read.   We all have our differing opinions and points of view and none of us is shy of saying what we think.  I am grateful after every meeting for learning things about our books that I may never have noticed on my own.  After catching up with each other and talking about holidays, birthdays, children, jobs and generally putting our worlds to right, we recently had the most fabulous discussion about the Orange Prize shortlisted Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan.  It’s not surprising really, as it is a remarkable book with a unique subject by a writer showing real promise with her second book.

The tale switches between Paris and Berlin during the early years of World War 2 and Berlin and Poland in 1992.  The story is one of friendship, betrayal, guilt and memory all relating to a group of young jazz musicians coping with the rise of fascism in 1930’s Berlin.  As Hitler’s power took hold, jazz was banned and it invariably moved underground.

“…Jazz. Here in Germany it become something worse than a virus. We was all of us damn fleas, us Negroes and Jews and low-life hoodlums, set on playing that vulgar racket, seducing sweet blond kids into corruption and sex. It wasn’t a music, it wasn’t a fad. It was a plague sent out by the dread black hordes, engineered by the Jews. Us Negroes, see, we was only half to blame – we just can’t help it. Savages just got a natural feel for filthy rhythms, no self-control to speak of. But the Jews, brother, now they cooked up this jungle music on purpose. All part of their master plan to weaken Aryan youth, corrupt its janes, dilute its bloodlines..”

The story focuses particularly on 3 of the musicians, Sid Griffiths, Chip Jones and Hieronymous Falk (Hiero).  These three are particularly peculiar in late 30’s Berlin, as they are black; Sid and Chip are American, Hiero is German.

“..He was a Mischling, a half-breed, but so dark no soul ever like to guess his mama a white Rheinlander.  Hell, his skin glistened like pure oil.  But he German-born, sure.  And if his face wasn’t of the Fatherland, just bout everything else bout him rooted him there right good..”

After a run-in with the authorities, Sid, Hiero and Chip escape to Paris, where, after many weeks of waiting and trying to keep the music alive, the Nazis occupy France and something very dreadful occurs to split the trio.   In 1992, Sid, who is the narrator, tries to make sense of the whole episode and how it has affected his life and those around him.

I’ve really tried hard with the above description not to give away too much of the plot.  It is difficult not to write more, but what would be the point of ruining it for you!

We discussed the plot in detail and were all agreed that it made for interesting reading, certainly providing a different perspective on the war years. We talked about how it wasn’t generally known that black Germans were persecuted, but this wasn’t such a surprise for me.  I started reading the book while in Berlin, and persuaded Mr Fictionhabit to check out some of the landmarks and streets mentioned in the book, luckily all very close to our hotel.  But while we were there we also went to Gedaenkstaette Deutscher Widerstand (Memorial to German Resistance).  This, by the way, is an excellent museum.  Free and with a brilliant English audiotour.  What I found interesting was the extent of German resistance to the Third Reich, but I have to admit my dismay at learning about those sections of society abused by the Nazis but largely forgotten by history.  There were so many persecuted minority groups working against the regime – if they had pooled their resources they may have been able to achieve something.   These groups included, communists, homosexuals, Romany gypsys, Christians, members of the labour movement and youth groups.  There was even a mention for Herr & Frau Hampel who were the inspiration for Alone in Berlin.  Generally speaking, however, the main premise of the book isn’t well known and therefore makes interesting reading.  Edugyan, must have done significant research for this book and it has paid off, as it feels so real.

As you will have noticed from the extracts above, the book is written in Jazz vernacular.  Some of my bookclub friends were a bit worried about this ahead of reading the book, but we all agreed, it wasn’t too difficult to get to grips with.  We also recently read On the Road by Jack Kerouac.  While discussing that book we talked about the tempo of the narrative echoing freestyle jazz (yes, really, we did!).  We had a very similar discussion about Half Blood Blues.  The book has periods of high energy and periods of lull and becomes a bit dense where nothing much happens.  One of my very clever bookclub friends pointed out that maybe the vernacular and the changes in tempo were deliberate, to mirror the mood of jazz music, which speeds up, then mellows, builds to a crescendo, lulls, has staccato and fluid moments side by side.  This comment inspired another friend to mention that there were at least 3 heart-breaking moments in the book (honestly, tear-inducing), and the narrative seems to build to these points, mirroring different movements in a piece of music.  Once this was all mentioned, I could see and understand it.  Oh, to be so clever!

We also discussed how unlikable the main character was, how reprehensible and unforgivable some of his behaviour was.  I was one of those who felt very little sympathy with this character during his younger years.  But I was made to re-think when someone pointed out that his behaviour was very characteristic of most young men.  Desperate to find their place in the group, yearning for influence, showing off in front of women and people in powerful positions, not supporting each other for fear of losing face or position in the group, constantly competing against each other and never discussing their hopes and fears.  This revelation went some way to explain the behaviour although not to excuse it.  We were by now completely staggered by Edugyan’s skill at writing so proficiently about male relationships.

Half Blood Blues is by no means a fully polished book.  There are details which we were all dissatisfied with, these included issues of historical and geographical accuracy and a weaker ending than we’d anticipated. We were however all impressed and agreed that Edugyan shows real promise as a writer.

One of our members rebelled against Half Blood Blues and instead read the Orange Prize winner, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.  She spoke about it with such affection and admiration that a few of us have been persuaded to give it a go over the summer.  It is possible that we may soon lose this member of our bookgroup as she makes a life changing move to the Isle of Skye (although bookclub by Skype has been talked of!) and it will be sad to see her go.  I console myself with the knowledge that I bonded with her and my other bookclubbers initially over books but over the 8 years we have been meeting to discuss books, we have become more than just bookclub buddies.  I am proud to call these astute, knowledgeable and articulate women, my friends.

The Wall Jumper – Peter Schneider trans. Leigh Hafrey

Next weekend Mr Fictionhabit and I are heading to Berlin for our special birthday treat and thanks to Englishman in Berlin we have lots of tips of what to do while we are there. Unfortunately, I haven’t done as much reading prep as I’d have liked, but I did read The Wall Jumper by Peter Schneider, a book set before the fall of the wall.

Berlin has long been a historically significant city, even now years after the fall of the wall it remains geo-politically important, albeit in a different sense than when this book was set.  Between 1988-90 I was studying  for my German A Level.  It couldn’t have been a more exciting time to follow the political and social development of that nation.  I remember being incredibly moved and emotional watching the events unfold during the autumn of 1989, culminating in that night in November when thousands of East Germans flowed through the crossing points into West Berlin to be greeted with hugs and cheers from their West German neighbours.  Of course the story didn’t end there, as the following year saw “die Wiedervereinigung”/reunification and the start of tearing down the social walls built up over the 28 years of a divided Germany.

Memories of these years were brought to the fore recently.  My parents are moving house and despite having had several clear-outs over the years, the most recent revealing a box of letters I had saved, cheerfully bound with different ribbon for each friend, they still have a few items belonging to me.  A large manila envelope landed on my doormat the other week containing some of my A Level work and exam preparation.  My mum thought I might like to keep it, bless her.  The essay is entitled “Deutschland – Eine neue Supermacht?” (Germany – A new superpower?) and I clearly used an article written in the Sunday Telegraph on 12 Nov 1989 to help me.  I got an A- and my teacher, David Ladd wrote at the bottom “I hope you can repeat this – if necessary – in an exam” a comment revealing he suspected me of having some help with the essay from German relatives!  I went on to get an A in my A level so feel slightly vindicated!  With my memory piqued I decided to pick up Peter Schneider’s book to take me right back to that time.

The Wall Jumper is a short novel at under 150 pages, but a fascinating insight into a nation divided and a useful observation of Wall anecdotes for generations familiar with the Berlin Wall as historical fact rather than the manifestation of the cold war itself.   It is certainly an absorbing lesson on what it must have been like to be German and living in Berlin during this time.  Schneider describes the collective German thinking during the initial years of the Wall:

…Once the initial panic died, the massive structure faded increasingly to a metaphor in the West German consciousness.  What on the far side meant an end to freedom of movement, on the near side came to symbolise a detested social order.  The view East shrank to a view of the border complex and finally to a group-therapy absorption with the self: for Germans in the West the Wall became a mirror that told them day by day, who was the fairest one of all.  Whether there was life beyond the death strip soon mattered only to pigeons and cats…

Although it is a novel, The Wall Jumper reads like a journalistic report, but it is this reportage style bound closely with the interesting cast of characters and deftness of anecdotal description, clearly based on personal experiences, that makes this book so easy and lovely to read.  The narrator, based in West Berlin, is gathering Wall stories from friends and family on both sides of the Wall.  Schneider uses a quirky and amusing device to link all the stories and characters; every time he collects a story, he re-tells it to the next person he meets, Schneider finishes each of these sections with:

(Character) listens carefully, thinks a while, orders a second round of vodka and beer, and then asks, without wasting another word: “Do you know the story about…”

The stories the narrator collects are primarily about people who defy the Wall and continue to move freely from one side to the other.  These stories are interesting in themselves as they are not the same stories most of us have heard about the Wall.  But chiefly this book is about what it means to be German.  There are a couple of incredibly perceptive passages near the end of the book that seem to capture the essence of this question.

…If I respond to queries about my nationality by saying without hesitation that I’m German, I am clearly opting not for a state, but for a people that no longer has a state identity.  At the same time, however, I assert that my national identity does not depend on either of the German states.  The same thing applies to the expression: “I come from Germany.” Either it has no meaning, or I am speaking of a country that appears on no political map.  By Germany I am referring neither to the DDR (German Democratic Republic) nor to the BRD (Federal Republic of Germany) but to a country which exists only in my memory or my imagination.  If I were asked where it lies, I could only locate it in its history and in the language I speak…

and when referring to the constant comparisons between East and West and which is better he says:

…I only know that we will fail in our attempt to cure the madness of one state by referring to the madness of another…

Certainly a piece of wisdom which can be applied to any spat between nations.

Undoubtedly, this is a fascinating commentary on life in Berlin before 1989, but it is also a beautifully written piece of prose and a real pleasure to read.  Credit must go to the translation by Leigh Hafrey, too often I’ve read books with iffy translation, but he’s done a great job with Peter Schneider’s text.

I’m going to finish this post with the most poignant sentence in the book:

…It will take longer to tear down the Wall in our heads than any wrecking company will need for the Wall we can see…

PS If you are interested in finding out what life is like in Berlin today, please check out Englishman in Berlin

Reading prep for Berlin

Mr Fiction Habit and I are celebrating special birthdays this year and as a gift and treat to ourselves we are heading to Berlin for a long weekend on our own (i.e. ohne Kinder) in May.  In preparation for this trip I have been scouring the big river site for books to inspire me ahead of our visit to the culturally blended, historically significant centre of Europe .  This city has so much history and hopefully, some Berlin-related literature will get me even more excited than I already am.

I have been to Berlin once before.  I was young, still a small girl.  The wall still dominated the city and the cold war was very much in full swing.   When I was younger I spent many years living in Germany, with my family and as a student.  I haven’t lived there for some time but continue to visit regularly.  I speak German fairly fluently and sometimes even force myself to read a novel in German, just to stop from getting too rusty.  I am in a bit of a vicious circle when it comes to reading in German; I don’t read enough, because I am too slow and I am too slow because I don’t read enough!!

There are a couple of “Berlin” books I already have under my belt:

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood is a semi autobiographical series of linked short stories relating to his time in Berlin during the inter-war years.  A strange time in Germany’s history.  The stories describe the decadence and lasciviousness of Berlin’s underbelly against the backdrop of Hitler’s rise to power.   There is an underlying feeling of loneliness to this book as the characters struggle to come to terms with how the country’s politics affects their lives.

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada was one of the hit books of a couple of years ago.  It tells the heroic but sad story of an elderly couple who stand up to the Nazi regime in a quiet rebellion of postcard drops after their only son is killed during the war.  It is an incredibly moving tale of what grief can do to you.

During my research of other books I could read in preparation for my trip, I mostly came across stories set during the war or spy stories relating to Berlin’s time cut off from the rest of West Germany.  I haven’t really come across much about contemporary Berlin.  I also haven’t found much by German writers, which is a bit sad.  I am happy to read non-fiction aswell.

The few I have found and am considering buying are:

If anyone has any experience of these books and could recommend a couple, that would be great – or maybe you have some better ideas?