“All The Colours of the Spectrum”: Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black”

I spent much of the weekend at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, and managed to hear five of the six shortlisted Booker authors speak: four – Rachel Kushner, Daisy Johnson, Richard Powers and Robin Robertson – appeared together on stage on the Saturday; the fifth, Esi Edugyan, was on Sunday interviewed alone by the excellent Afua Hirsch. This means I’ve only missed Anna Burns, which is a shame – because for my money her novel, Milkman, is in the top flight of this year’s shortlist. But it’s Edugyan, I think, who is the author to beat this year.

Her novel, Washington Black, begins on a Barbados plantation known as “Faith” in 1830. The titular narrator, George Washington Black (or Wash for short), is a young slave of around ten years old (“I cannot say for certain” [p. 3]), and in the opening pages he gives us everything we might expect from this sort of story: cruel overseers, caring-but-cowed fellow slaves, brutal work, distant memories of earlier identities (“If you dead, you wake up again in your homeland,” insists Big Kit, one of the older slaves and one of the few with knowledge of Africa [p. 9]). Very early on, too, Edugyan makes clear that slavery was not merely an economic system, but a cultural and social one – a means of production as linked to white self-image as it was any particular business model:

Faith itself darkened under our new master. In the second week, he dismissed the old overseers. In their place arrived rough men from the docks, tattooed, red-faced, grimacing at the heat. These were ex-soldiers or old slavers or just island poor, with their papers crushed into a pocket and the sunken eyes of devils. Then the maimings began. What use could we be, injured so? (p. 8)

None at all, obviously. But that was not the point. Rather, slavery was – and, alas, can continue to be – as important in how it shores up, confirms and reflects on white supremacy as it was in providing for the ever-increasing demands of the proto-industrial economy. Very late in the novel, Wash will tell a white man: “You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black men” (p. 405). (It’s surely deliberate that even Wash isn’t free of another prejudice of the time: phallocentrism.)

The corrupting influence of slavery as an institution, then, is one of Edugyan’s key themes. But in her talk at Cheltenham, she emphasised that she considers Washington Black a post-slavery narrative, one which shifts the emphasis from bondage to what happens after the bonds are if not slipped free then loosened, little by little over time. This is a wise vision of a novel such as this, since I have some sympathy with the criticism that the recent preponderance of slave fictions can crowd out important stories of other sorts. For the first fifty or a hundred pages of Washington Black, then, I was impressed but uncertain: here was another brilliantly written novel of slavery which was going to rightly argue that the institution was wrong – and then move on. I was left feeling like Wash when he is first allowed by Titch, the naturalist brother of Faith’s master, to climb a hill in preparation for assisting in an experiment: “I was troubled by the enormous beauty of that place, of the jewel-like fields below us, littered as I knew them to be with broken teeth” (p. 60).

Washington Black is indeed very finely written. It has by far the smoothest, most controlled prose style on the shortlist. There is never a dip or a jagged edge, except where one is intended to be; every character emerges from the pages fully-formed and of crystal clarity; the characters’ speech reads redolently of their period without falling into pastiche; description is eloquent and evocative without being over-wrought; there are where necessary flashes of absolute wit and insight – “Mister Wilde had told me I was born with a ring of luck at my neck. Luck is its own kind of manacle” (p. 231) – and elsewhere, where appropriate, of more dilatory and yet no less apposite virtues. In one astonishing passage, Wash oversees the ferrying of live cargo across the Atlantic:

The winter crossed was rough, and some of the less hardy genera began to die off. When the octopus I’d caught in the cover grew colourless, lethargic, we stopped paying the steward to bring us sea water. Goff and I descended to the clanging, grim lower hold on the rare days we were in port and, stepping out into the blanched air, we’d disembark alongside a crewman to gather clean sea water into fir-wood casks. Using some rude instrument of my devising, we tested for impurities. The breeze would lift my hat, and I’d crouch there with my sticks and papers, sometimes cupping the water to my face to taste for deadly metals. Occasionally, a small, curious crowd would gather at the boats glistening rail to peer down at the strand old man and his ugly burnt slave who drank straight from the sea. (pp. 317-8)

No one line in this passage stands out, and yet the whole thing taken together reads as improbably moving. In boasting such complete control, but also in being willing to push its characters into situations which demand she move past the politeness of polished prose into something rawer and yet still beautiful, Washington Black is orders of magnitude better than Edugyan’s previous novel, Half-Blood BluesIt is much broader and deeper, following Wash in four parts from plantation to initial freedom – and on to, ultimately, residence in England – via a series of perhaps unlikely but never less than credible events. At each stage of his journey away from slavery – first as fugitive and finally as a “free” man – Wash perceives more and more a piecemeal process which at first had at first been invisible to him. Here is where the novel becomes the post-slavery narrative it prefers to be: in establishing clearly, but then not dwelling on, the depredations of the slave trade, Washington Black is able more fully to understand its legacies – and those individuals who might once have been a part of it.

Most importantly, Wash comes to live in a world still defined by white supremacy. He can achieve nothing without a white sponsor or benefactor – and, even when he finds one, his talents are co-opted by them without permission or second thought. A prodigiously talented illustrator, via Titch Wash becomes fascinated by the natural world, and marine biology in particular. He comes to make a huge contribution to that discipline – and yet, in the sort of act of erasure that the recent movie Hidden Figures made so palpable, his name appears nowhere close to the record of that invention. It will be remembered instead as the work of a white man, Wash having merely drifted from an explicit slavery to another sort of indenture. “I had been a slave, I had been a fugitive […] and I had survived it only to let the best of my creations be taken from me,” Wash sighs (p. 337).

Not everything is perfectly balanced in the novel, however. Edugyan also said at Cheltenham that she was keen not to allow her white characters to become cruel caricatures – but rather to show how slavery came to erode their senses of self and personal relationships, too. In treating the figure of Titch with such care and even sympathy, however, the novel comes perilously close to centring the experience of a white man in a narrative about black slavery and emancipation. Prior to the moment at which she wisely removes Titch from the narrative, Edugyan cannot help but lead us, fascinated, by the nose in Titch’s wake. Perhaps we are meant to feel some of the unearned hero-worship Titch encourages in Wash, the slave he “frees” from the oversight of his master; but later in the novel Wash still believes that Titch “had risked his own good comfort, the love of his family, his name […] His harm, I thought, was in not understanding that he still had the ability to cause it” (p. 406). This is an extremely forgiving vision of the scion of a slaveholding family, whatever abolitionist identity they may adopt in reaction to that practice; and there’s even something of the tragic to it, a poignancy which renders Titch some kind of hero, a figure of unusually poetic proportions who inevitably takes some of the narrative’s momentum with him when he leaves.

Crucial to all this is Edugyan’s concept of freedom. She sees it not as an unalloyed good so much as a tool we must all be given so we may be the person we truly are – good or bad. Wash is spun a story on the plantation by Big Kit, who tells him that freedom is about doing what you wish at all times. The novel is a journey away from that simplicity. “Freedom, Wash, is a word with different meanings to different people,” Titch at another point lectures him, “as though I did not know the truth of this better than he” (p. 154); when Wash learns that the Faith plantation has been sold and disbanded, he comes to wonder about his old friends – “did they use their freedom wisely or foolishly?” (p. 183)  We never know. What we are sure of, however, is that they will have been able, to one extent or another, to pick their path, unlike when they were held in bondage. “You speak of slavery as though it is a choice,” Wash later upbraids another character. “As if there are those who are naturally slaves, and those who are not” (p. 268). This, of course, is a calumny – and Wash is a proof of that, but one which the white scientists around him never quite fully perceive. Only in the Arctic wilderness where Titch’s father toiled in cataloguing natural phenomena is racism seen to be on hold, the exception proving the rule:

“And who introduced you to this delicacy?” said Titch. “Your man? […] Your Esquima, I mean. The one who brought us here on his sled.”

“Hesiod? But he is not our servant. […] He comes and goes at his own choosing. There is no word for ‘servant’ in his tongue.” (p. 203)

(No servant, perhaps; but he is named nevertheless by white men.)

Again, you’ll notice, Titch is the vehicle through which the lesson is dramatised. He is the crease in Edugyan’s philosophy, the anchored line that keeps the big ideas of her novel rooted a little too squarely in place. This is the primary reason I can see for the other big book on this year’s shortlist, Richard Powers’s The Overstory, pipping Edugyan at the post. As distinct from what I still consider to be Milkman‘s unique qualities, both Washington Black and The Overstory feel like weighty novels addressing universal concerns – works which escape the particular. I won’t have time before tonight’s ceremony to write up my thoughts on The Overstory, but it is almost monumental in its solidity, its fixedness of purpose. It, too, is a philosophical novel: in Powers’s case, the governing principal is environmentalist unblinding, the book as a whole a sort of arboreal DeLillo, an American epic following nine disparate characters through a twentieth- and twenty-first-century reckoning with trees (“a tree is a passage between earth and sky” [p. 57]). As one has come to expect from Powers, an intellectual novelist whose books are influenced very much by his previous life as a computer programmer – all flawless logic and clarity of parameters – The Overstory is as complete as a megalith. It has no ideological flaws or accidents, no Titch to skip disruptively through the text. It is insistent, oddly monomaniacal for a novel so gloriously baggy, focusing squarely on its vision of the necessary reorienting of our understanding of what the world is, of “what life wants from people, and how it might use them” (p. 494).

Perhaps it is part of this project that The Overstory is never quite human, however. Washington Black, on the other hand, is only ever over-generous in its extension of sympathy, too readily understanding of individuals’ perfidy and weakness. “I rather underestimated the intrepid nature of human stupidity,” we read at one point in the novel (p. 200), and it seems a lodestar for the book’s vision of us. The seminal line is given, of course, to the patriarch of a slaveholding family. I think it may be this clear-sightedness, but also this compassion, which wins Edugyan the prize this evening.

“Lost In The Dark Maw of History”: Esi Edugyan’s “Half Blood Blues”

During a recent appearance on Desert Island Discs, a breathless Molly Parkin told a story about meeting Louis Armstrong in her early days at Goldsmiths College, London: she was ignorant of jazz, but the crowd she’d fallen in with insisted she join them at one of the trumpeter’s concerts of that year. After the show, which came as a revelation to her, Parkin and the others went backstage, and, as she tells it, Armstrong propositioned her; when she demurred, and revealed she was not just a virgin but had never been kissed, Satchmo took her face in his hands and laid his lips to hers. Two weeks later, Parkin wasn’t a virgin anymore.

Armstrong appears as a secondary character in Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues, but rather than the impish, mercurial, passionate figure revealed in Parkin’s story, here he is re-figured somewhat bloodlessly as an unscrupulous sage: falling in with the group of musicians who will record the fictional jazz great which gives the novel its title, he gives each of them a pep talk about love, live and music – and then flees the Nazi advance without taking any of them, including his road girlfriend Delilah, with him. In this way, his role is less that of a character and more as an embodiment of Edugyan’s conception of music: for a musician, it is both driving purpose and unfaithful lover, both bosom buddy and betrayer.

The narrator of Half Blood Blues is Sid Griffiths, the averagely talented bassist with the Hot-Time Swingers, a popular jazz act in Weimar Germany which is quite literally struggling to survive in the face of Nazification. In the course of the book, the band move between Berlin, Hamburg and Paris, shedding members to coincidence and persecution: their Jewish pianist is betrayed to the Nazis by a rival; an aristocratic German member of the group opts to stay behind in his father’s country pile, having secured exit papers for the others; and Hiero, the band’s youthful and mercurial trumpet player, is arrested in a Paris nightclub after the German army occupy the Swingers’ last redoubt. It is this final loss which is the emotional core of the book: in the decades since 1940, Hieronymous Falk has come to be appreciated as a jazz genius, a trumpeter of uncommon and tragically unrealised talent, and in 1992 the surviving members of the band – Sid and his childhood friend, the now famous drummer Chip Jones – are invited to a Berlin festival devoted to the genius Sid still refers to as ‘the kid’.

Sid, however, is an unreliable narrator – this is clear as soon as the novel starts full of unspoken tensions and difficulties, when we are dumped into the Paris of 1940, and the Swingers are working hard and feverishly, in hiding and behind back-out curtains, on their last ever recording – and there are a number of betrayals which are slowly unwound through the course of the book. Armstrong’s girlfriend, Delilah Brown, is a key figure in these machinations; but so, too, is the ambivalent force of great jazz – the pressure it exerts upon those who play it to push themselves, to prove themselves, to excel and to record that excellence for the ages. Indeed, and somewhat disappointingly, the degradations of the period are here very much in the background: they offer a reason for the Swingers to be running around and under stress, and they offer a peril which forces urgency onto their slow disintegration, but at the same time this is a story, all jealousy, frustration and thwarted egos, which could have taken place in Sid and Chip’s native Baltimore. This more than anything else represents the novel’s real missed opportunity – and failing.

Sid is a light-skinned African-American, able to avoid all but the most suspicious of Nazi glares; yet Hiero, who is in fact German – one of the ‘Rhineland bastards’ born to French colonial troops and local women during the inter-war years – is so dark that in Paris his only alibi is that he is from Senegal; meanwhile, the Swingers’ pianist, though Jewish, is blonde-haired and blue-eyed, capable of convincing camaraderie on long train rides with sneering Gestapo officers. The arbitrariness of race and nationality is thus constantly underlined, and yet to little effect. “So we passed, sure,” admits Sid. “But there was passing, and there was passing. Sometimes it seemed we’d passed right out of our own skins.” [pp. 78-9]   Despite sly references here and there, this backdrop never becomes foreground – Edugyan simply relies on the modern reader’s a priori assumption that the persecution is absurd and reprehensible, and therefore assumes no responsibility for analysing and addressing it except as frame for her plot.

Perhaps this is all part of her subtle purpose – yet the foregrounded plot does not speak thematically to its context, either. Sid’s secrets are born of personal and individualised envy, his love and lust for a woman and embittered acceptance of his own musical limitations; we can’t transpose Sid’s small acts of betrayal, or indeed those of Chip or Armstrong, onto the system which has marginalised, and seeks to murder, them. The novel is built around Hiero’s coming of age – when we first meet him, he mimics Sid or sounds like Satchmo, but come the final recording session his music is “the very sound of age, of growing older, of adolescent rage being tempered by a man’s heart.” [pg. 310]  That is, this is a book about a coming of age, about moving on. Given the lack of English language work on the Afro-German experience under the Nazis, this seems an odd choice. The reader is struck, for instance, by the young trumpeter’s reaction when he and Sid visit a ‘human zoo’, in which spoils of colonial conquest – chiefs and their tribes – are displayed for public consumption in full regalia: “Hiero ain’t even blinked. There wasn’t no sense of curiosity in that gaze, no sense of shock. Just calm resignation, like when a man gazes at a portrait of himself from another time.” [pg. 171]

That creole voice is present throughout – a potent mix of Baltimore bar slang and German, of jazz scat and self-recrimination. This works better in some places than in others – at times the prose loses its characteristics so completely one wonders if the perspective hasn’t changed; at others it reads more like Uncle Remus than a 1940s jazz musician in Europe. It lacks, then, the remarkable, supple control of deWitt’s work in The Sisters Brothers; likewise, its scope and courage fall well below that of  Jamrach’s Menagerie. We are sometimes exposed to cliché – embarassed by rejection, Sid bites the inside of his mouth so hard he can taste the blood, and the femme fatale has a sad secret hidden behind her glamorous exterior – and at others the attempts to précis history as if living it are clumsy: “The Krauts hurtled through Belgium, Holland Luxembourg […] the British ain’t got a government, […] some joker named Churchill taken over. Then the Frogs sent their armies north, and the Limeys opened a front against the Krauts. Then it was the Krauts leading parachutists in behind our lines. Hell.” [pg. 279]

There’s no denying that Edugyan can conjure the atmosphere of a 1930s jazz bar, or the weird liminality of a city under siege, with economy and great effect. She is good, too, at male banter and the condition of the musician. But she is also occasionally cavalier, and hesitant to push her story and her characters further than might be polite. It’s hard not to conclude that Half Blood Blues might not be a better book had its two halves – the recriminations of a jazz band, the persecutions of Africans in Nazi Germany – been separated. As it is, this is a readable, elegant and at times moving book (its epilogue, in particular, makes great use of the emotional power of the novel’s premise); but it isn’t all it could – and arguably should – have been.