Half Blood Blues

Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan

Narrated by 82-year-old Sidney ‘Sid’ Griffiths (bass), Half Blood Blues looks back from a point in 1992 to the years 1939–40 in Berlin and Paris, when a six-piece jazz band composed of three Germans (one Jewish), two black Americans (one so light-skinned he can often pass for white), and a ‘Mischling’ (“a half-breed, but so dark no soul ain’t never like to guess his mama a white Rheinlander”) are trying to cut one last record before the inevitable catches up with them. Their one last great record is to be a jazzed-up and subversive version of the Horst Wessel Song.

It would be easy for a work with that amount of dramatic potential to lose the run of itself, but this book is a great piece of work precisely because of its restraint. The Nazis are at the door, there are curfews and hiding in cellars, arrests and beatings, but what anchors the piece and keeps the scale manageable and movingly human is the narrator’s jealousy, both sexual and professional, of one of the other characters. Around this personal central theme are woven all sorts of larger issues of race, humanity, betrayal, compassion, and forgiveness.

It is no accident that the title of the novel could be the title of a piece of music. From what we might call the ‘noir Noir’ tone of the opening lines – “ . . . the cracked heaters lisping steam, empty bottles rolling all over the warped floor. Our cigarettes glowed like small holes in the dark, and that’s how I known we wasn’t buzzing” – the narrative voice flows with a rhythm that sweeps the reader along. This is Sid’s solo, but as in any jazz ensemble, everyone gets time in the spotlight, and Charles ‘Chip’ Jones (drums) and Hieronymous ‘Kid’ Falk (trumpet) live and breathe as  individuals, as indeed do all the lesser characters.  And there are some truly arresting moments of writing about music, as in the passage describing Hiero’s duet with Louis Armstrong.

Of course the big theme is race/colour.  Armstrong discusses with the Americans the situation in Europe: “‘It a sight more decent than where we come from.’ – ‘What, Chicago?’ I said. ‘Try Baltimore’.  – ‘Try Orleans,’ Armstrong said.”  The theme is carried through the novel even in the contrasts between the dark rooms and cellars where the characters spend most of their time, and the ash-blond light-filled skies that greet them when they leave Germany and then France behind.

The novel ends, fittingly, with music, though not with jazz. This time it’s the voice of Marcella Sembrich, a Polish coloratura soprano who lived much of her life in America. Again the assurance of the work shows in this one image. Entirely understated, it carries within it so much of what the book has been about.

A multi-layered, thought-provoking, and moving novel. As the character right at the end says (presumably with a playful nod from the author): ‘Play it again’.