In Esi Edugyan’s novel Half-Blood Blues, the narrator’s inventive and free-flowing descriptions of jazz mimic the music itself. For readers unfamiliar with jazz or unimpressed by it, the explosion of color, verve, imagery and verbal idiosyncrasy in the book will in and of itself quicken the heartbeat and warm the insides. How not, with central character Hiero (Hieronymus) Falk delivering “note after shimmering note, like sunshine sliding all over the surface of a lake,” and with the great Louis Armstrong, “who could make his glissandi snap like marbles, the high Cs piercing,” joining him in an impromptu jam session?
Half-Blood Blues gives us an improbable but gripping tale, narrated by bassist Sid Griffiths of the Hot-Time Swingers, a German and African-American jazz band in Nazi Germany and later in France. “Think about it,” muses Sid. “A bunch of German and American kids meeting up in Berlin and Paris between the wars to make all this wild, joyful music before the Nazis kick it to pieces? And the legend survives when a lone tin box is dug out of a damn wall in a flat once belonged to a Nazi? Man. If that ain’t a ghost story, I never heard one.”
Edugyan’s second novel (her first was The Second Life of Samuel Tyne) has been heralded by many as original both in subject matter and prose. This is largely true—though the commendations for her prose should be qualified. Her characters speak a jazz-influenced Baltimore argot particularly well-suited to repartee and the coining of aphorisms. That said, the rendition of their German-language conversations (Hiero doesn’t know English) in this same spontaneous and idiomatic style stretches credulity a bit.
The book proved to be a major success in the author’s native Canada, where it won the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2011 and was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award. It made the short list for the Man Booker Prize as well as the Orange Prize in the U.K. and has garnered a host of positive reviews since its recent publication in the U.S. If it requires a major suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader—and if it doesn’t quite fully live up to all the trans-Atlantic hype surrounding it—Half-Blood Blues still emerges as substantive and entertaining.
We start in Nazi-occupied Paris, 1940, at a recording session by the Hot-Time Swingers, reduced in number since escaping Nazi Germany but still brimming with magic. Sid, the bassist, discreetly salvages one of several discs the Swingers record but then throw away at the insistence of Hiero, the dazzlingly talented trumpet player who is the crux of the band—and a perfectionist. The next morning, the Nazis snatch Hiero, who disappears.
Fast forward to Baltimore, 1992. Chip Jones, drummer of the (long since dissolved) Swingers, urges Sid to go back to Germany with him to attend a jazz festival named after Hiero. It turns out the disc Sid saved that long-ago night, with its single track, “Half-Blood Blues,” has made Hiero and his band world-famous.
Chip also floors Sid with a surprise—he has just received a letter from Hiero, alive and well in Poland. Hiero has asked that if his two old bandmates go to Germany for the festival, they proceed to Poland afterward to visit him. Sid does not quite believe Chip, but agrees to fly with him to Germany. The story alternates between Sid’s account of the trip and, in much longer chapters, his remembrances of life in Germany and France more than 50 years earlier.
At the festival, Chip and Sid view a documentary film. In it, Chip and others appear to blame Sid for Hiero’s capture (and presumed death) at the hands of the Nazis. The accusation is false—Chip acknowledges as much to a furious Sid afterward. But the truth of what happened those last days in Paris before Hiero’s capture and the band’s decision to pack it in and leave Europe is almost as explosive. Edugyan does not initially reveal that Sid remains haunted by a fateful decision he made. That comes into play at a later stage.
Hiero, the illegitimate son of a German woman and an African soldier in the service of the French army (hence the book’s title, as well as that of the record he and his bandmates cut), presents an intriguing character, though he’s much too subdued. With the exception of a brief expedition to a zoo in the northern German city of Hamburg, where he indignantly shows Sid an African (human) exhibit, Hiero remains frustratingly taciturn, tightly guarded. That said, the story’s premise is not inconceivable; a few African-Americans did play jazz in Weimar Germany. But they had little reason to stay once the man Sid memorably refers to as “the Housepainter” seized power in 1933. Several jazz players bore a double curse. They were black. They also played music considered degenerate by Hitler and the Nazis.
“Jazz. Here in Germany it become something worse than a virus,” observes Sid. And since the Nazis were totalitarian, they started banning unfavorable music and shutting down venues where it played. One was the Hound, owned by Swingers clarinetist Ernst.
As suspenseful fiction will have it, the Swingers improbably choose to stick it out in Germany. At one point, Sid cites visas as the obstacle barring their departure, but when push comes to shove and they must leave for France following a fatal altercation with Nazi thugs, they manage to obtain visas through Ernst’s unsympathetic but well-connected father.
The Swingers by now find themselves several people short. Pianist Paul Butterstein, a Jew, has been arrested and sent to a camp. Fritz, the alto saxophone player, decides to stay in Germany and play with another band. Ernst has promised his father he’ll stay in Germany in return for those visas for his friends.
In Paris, this story really comes alive. Sid reconnects with the frail, striking, strong-willed Delilah, whom he first met when she visited Berlin to scout out the Swingers on Louis Armstrong’s behalf. “Beautiful like a turning season, like something you known just ain’t going to last,” Sid describes Delilah, though he could easily be speaking of his band and its music. Delilah introduces the band members to Armstrong, a man whose imposing but also poignant presence Edugyan expertly conveys through Sid’s observations. “His mouth was shocking. He done wrecked his chops from the pressure of hitting all them high notes over the years. His bottom lip hung slightly open, like a drawer of red velvets. He lift a handkerchief to his mouth, wipe off a line of spittle.”
In Paris, Sid also begins to feel more and more jealous of Hiero, who wins Armstrong’s admiration and seems destined for greatness.
Though Half-Blood Blues may generally have been overrated by critics, it delivers an undeniably potent, soul-searching examination of friendship and trust. This may be a novel about beautiful music in an ugly and terrifying place, all those mellifluous strands of jazz amid the jingoism and cacophony of Nazism. But major historical and literary themes of the 20th century weave through too—racism and the plight of the outsider. The book also probes timeless and universal dilemmas: Should one invest in the notion that art can transcend socially constructed barriers? Should friendship be manipulated or even sacrificed on the altar of professional ambition?
Half-Blood Blues hits the right notes on all these things—and it may also move you to run out and buy an armful of old jazz records.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Beirut, Lebanon.