Whenever I read James Baldwin, especially his essays, I think about how when he talks about Paris in the 40s and 50s (and so forth) as being a place in which he doesn’t always have to be conscious of his race as a Black man (and especially an African-American). There’s a part of me that gets it, but I also think about what forms of racism, prejudice, or just otherness he still must go through, and understand more so that he’s making a careful calculation about what’s tolerable and what’s not, not simply making a clear choice. It’s almost an equation for him.
In this novel, there’s a similar set of equations and calculations being made too. But rather than being a Black man in the 1950s in Paris, our characters are Black jazz musicians in the Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Well actually, we’re in a few different times, as part of the novel takes place in 1992 when our protagonist is returning to Germany decades later as a kind of cultural exchange after the fall of the Berlin wall. He’s also hoping to find some of the people he knew from his Germany days. He also finds out at some point that an old friend, who he believed to have died in a concentration camp is possibly still alive. This figure, Chip, another Black musician, but with German citizenship was not able to escape in time and was presumably lost to the world.
The novel jumps back and forth between these two times as we learn more and more about the past, as it slowly begins to fill in gaps and fogginess in the present. The novel is rich in a lot of ways, but not presented in straight-forward narration, but a very closely-held defensiveness of our protagonist.