In 1930s Tunisia, still a French colony, Darius Zaken’s pious father plans to leave the Tunis ghetto to set up his bookshop in the modern French quarter where his son can attend the lycée. An appalling incident shatters his dreams, leaving Darius lame and too traumatised to speak. Against the odds, his mother Stella dedicates her life to his getting a good education which will lead to a professional job in mainland France, but a chance meeting with a spoilt rich girl called Lou gives him other ideas. Taking him under her wing, she introduces him to the louche world of jazz, and he develops a passion for the jazz clarinet, for which he has a remarkable talent. To his bewildered mother, jazz is a meaningless cacophony.
With the onset of World War Two, the arrival in Tunis of black American jazz musicians attached to the US Army gives Darius the change to slip away to the United States. Here he can realise his talent eventually, but in a harsh world of prejudice and segregation, where jazz is regarded as the preserve of the black population, and many of the most talented musicians addicted to drink, heroin and cocaine. A sensitive soul, Darius attracts the sympathy of a succession of women: his mother, Lou and ultimately Dinah, an astute black American.
Focusing on the first part of Darius’s life, when he is striving to succeed, this novel is episodic, leaving the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps. Philippe Hayat succeeds in conveying a sense of the appeal of jazz, even to someone like me who does not care much for it, but his descriptions tend to be too long, repetitious and overtechnical. I was prompted to look up the parts of a clarinet, the nature of a ride cymbal, the meanings of various musical terms like “anatole”, chabada or Lydian scale, together with researching the lives of celebrities who inspired Darius and in time actually played with him: Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday who proved as tragically troubled in their often too short lives as Hayat describes.
This novel has a strong sense of place, be it interwar Tunis, Sicily under the WW2 Allied invasion, or postwar New York. The complex mother-son bond between Stella and Darius is well-described and moving. There are some striking, powerful dramatic scenes.
On the downside, the narrative drive is undermined by too many passages which are overlong and frankly dull. There are a few digressions too ludicrous to ring true, like the brothel where Darius is employed to play his clarinet to clients through holes in the wall through which he can view them, or Stella’s employment at a bank where she somehow becomes a financial expert in record time. Is a loss of speech through shock likely to be permanent? It is of course symbolic in that Darius expresses his emotions through the international language of music instead.
The plot structure seems weak. The opening chapter showing Darius as an old man giving his last performance, aided by the faithful Dinah, is not an engaging start, not least because we have yet to learn their backstories, and also destroys any dramatic tension since one knows from the outset that Darius will succeed.
In short, parts of this book are excellent but one has to wade through some dull passages to find them.