Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

published 2011    section set in Berlin 1992, but looking back 

Oh Berlin, our beautiful Berolina, our charcoal life. What a city this was, after that first war. And all of us poor, antsy, fetching to know what more life held. I been a latecomer, didn’t hit these streets till ’27, but man was she beautiful. Hundreds of gates flocked here, dragging their instruments. Hundreds of stage hens. Every joint felt famous then. The Barberina. Moka Efti. The Scala. In the Romanisches Café, the great brains of the age gathered like grapes to trade ideas over beer. I saw Kästner there, and Tucholsky, even Otto Dix. Dix maybe dreaming up nightmares for his paintings, pausing over his glass as something new struck him. That famous one he did of Anita Berber, the dancer, her hair and dress red as torn flesh. That Berber girl, hell. We used to flock to watch her dance at the White Mouse. She’d slither half-nude through the packed tables, bring her dance to a climax by breaking champagne bottles over fellows’ heads. Broke one over Big Fritz’s head, he ain’t hardly noticed. I remember her working the Eldorado, too, that pansy club so dark you couldn’t hardly see the stage. And her all flexing and shivering to the dry old tunes of Camille Saint-Saëns – man, did she ever bring it down.

observations: At the moment, the BBC is showing a new drama by Stephen Poliakoff - known also for The Lost Prince, mentioned in an entry this week. Dancing on the Edge is about a jazz band in London in the 1930s, and covers somewhat similar territory to this book. Most of Half Blood Blues is set in 1939 and 1940, but the author has stretched Sid’s time in Berlin back to 1927: Anita Berber died in 1928, aged 29, after a full and scandalous career as an androgynous beauty, starring in films and cabaret, and famed for drug-taking, alcoholism and bisexuality. She looks considerably more covered up in this picture than the descriptions of her stage performances suggest.

A previous entry mentioned that real-life figures crop up in this book quite a lot. The author has tried to re-create the atmosphere of the nightclubs and music haunts of Berlin and Paris, and the narrator’s voice is distinctive, using words and grammar in a presumably authentically strange manner. The book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011 (which Clothes in Books is always ready to say proves nothing) but is somewhat unsatisfactory to read. The modern and historical strands don’t really gel, there is a lot left unexplained, and incidents and events are either described in weird and unnecessary detail, or just glossed over as the author rushes on. But at the same time it has a very consistent, confident voice, a very assured feel to it.

Links on the blog: A great photo of a trumpeter came up last time. Nightclubs in Boston, London and New York have all featured on the blog.

The picture is of a German postage stamp, issued to mark the centenary of Otto Dix’s birth in 1991.


  1. I heard a lot about this book when it came out and was tempted to read it but never got around to it. I have to say your review suggests that I didn't miss that much.

    The picture of the woman in the red dress fits perfectly with the description you've highlighted.

  2. Moira - What an intense time in history that was! I can see why it's such an interesting context for a novel, and I do love that 'photo. But.... I think I'll wait to read it.

  3. I'm be quite interested to read this one, Moira, as the Weimar / Nazi periods were so tumultuous and I'm a sucker for all things Berlin - so thanks for flagging it up. Wonderful image too.


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