It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)

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It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)
Author: Aki Satō
Specifications: ISBN  978-4041050767
344 pages
12.8 x 18.8 cm / 5.1 x 7.5 in (WxH)
Category: Fiction
Publisher: Kadokawa Corporation
Tokyo, 2017
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Author Aki Satō’s eye for detail and her meticulous reconstruction of an era shine in this vivid portrait of rebellious German youths who find a salvation of sorts by immersing themselves in the local jazz scene of Hamburg during the years 1939 to 1945.

Narrator Eduard Voss goes by the Anglicized nickname of Eddie. As the only child of the owner of a large company that manufactures bearings and other supplies for the military, his future is secure. The story begins with Eddie at 15 and still in middle school, when he makes his first visit to a jazz club featuring a live band. His classmate Max Adler, a talented pianist, has secretly gotten hold of a Duke Ellington record and is eager to see and hear the music performed live, to see what he can learn, so the two of them attach themselves to a group of errant upperclassmen to get in. Completely enthralled by the experience, they return for a second visit less than a week later, and they are enjoying themselves dancing and drinking when the Gestapo arrives. It is of course problematic that they are underage, but that is not why they have come. On the way home from their first visit to the club, the boys had picked up a large number of propaganda leaflets dropped by British planes and stuffed them in the mailboxes of homes along the street, and the Gestapo has now identified them as the culprits. In this case they get off with some roughing up and a stern warning. They are spared more serious punishment thanks to Eddie’s father being a member of the Nazi Party, if a reluctant one.

German young people between the ages of ten and 18 were required at the time to join the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth). It is because Eddie is the son of one of the wealthiest businessmen in town that he and the rebel teens he hangs out with can grow their hair long and dress however they please, frequent nightclubs to drink and womanize, and skip Hitlerjugend activities at will without consequences. At the beginning of hostilities, the Nazi government had declared jazz “decadent” for its association with blacks and Jews, but it had not gone so far as to actually outlaw the music. But when the United States enters the war in 1941, jazz becomes “enemy music,” and for the remainder of the war it gains that special illicit cachet of underground culture. Not only do Eddie and his Swingjugend (Swing Youth) friends continue their trips to the jazz club to party and dance, but they also begin making pirated recordings of foreign radio broadcasts for sale on the black market. This new business becomes a big hit—testifying to just how many of their countrymen are starved for jazz.

Needless to day, the Swingjugend cannot escape the dark shadows cast by the war altogether. Max’s mother died in a traffic accident when he was little, and he now lives with his grandmother, the widow of a wealthy businessman. Even though she is a devout Protestant, the authorities suddenly declare her to be 100-percent Jewish (she is in fact half Jewish by blood). Her sister’s daughter, Mrs. Behrens, is declared to be 100-percent Jewish at about the same time: her husband is Jewish. Mr. Behrens is fired from the bank where he works, their property is confiscated, and they are soon sent to a concentration camp. Max’s distraught grandmother, who has always doted on her niece, hangs herself. (The Behrens’s two sons “become U-boats”—which is to say, they disappear underground to resurface in a prominent role later in the narrative.)

Eddie suffers a number of blows as well. His former girlfriend Addie is sent to a concentration camp after helping her new boyfriend, a medical student, distribute anti-government leaflets. The Gestapo raids a party and takes 18-year-old Eddie into custody, sentencing him to a juvenile detention facility where he is forced into hard construction labor. He develops gangrene in three toes but they are miraculously spared amputation. He also witnesses Poles and Russians sent to the facility from concentration camps being brutally murdered by guards. Eddie is given the option of getting out early by joining the military, but he continues to refuse. Partly thanks to his father’s help, he completes his sentence and is released, but then in the summer of 1943, Hamburg suffers massive Allied bombings and the entire city is reduced to rubble. Eddie’s parents are found dead in a basement. Though still a minor, he succeeds to his father’s position, and in spite of receiving a draft notice in January 1945, stays put at the factory for the duration to emerge from the war alive.

On the one hand Eddie is a rich kid who enjoys playing with fire, but he’s also surprisingly innocent in many ways. He comes to the aid of friends and acquaintances with little regard for his own safety, and is ever on the lookout for ways to escape the yoke of tyranny, even if it means paying a bribe.