Run to your bookstore and get a copy of Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues and relish this wondrous novel. Give copies to your friends. Let the book be so successful that publishers ask themselves how they could ignore the novel after it was written. Edugyan is Canadian, of Ghanaian heritage, and the author of an earlier prize-winning novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, but that didn’t make it easy for her get a publisher for Half-Blood Blues. When the book was finally published by Serpent’s Tail in England, things began to change for her. The novel was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize last year, but that didn’t help her get an American hard-cover publisher. Fortunately, the editors at Picador still appreciate good books and have published it as a paperback original. Moral of this story? It’s too much to expect editors to recognize greatness. These days, books are only commodities—you sell them like toothpaste and detergent.
The novel gravitates around two time periods: 1939-1940 and 1992. In the earlier period, Edugyan focuses on a group of jazz musicians known as the Hot-Time Swingers. They’re all young, barely into their twenties: “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.” A couple of them are African-American; the others are German, including one guy named Hieronymus Falk (called Hiero). His mother was German and father West African, which makes him a German citizen. A couple of the others are Aryan; another’s a German Jew during the awful time of Hitler’s rise.
Though the Hot-Time Swingers have tried to be apolitical, that’s increasingly difficult given what’s going on in Germany where the story begins. In the words of Sid, one of the musicians who’s African-American and the novel’s narrator, “Jazz. Here in Germany it become something worse than a virus. We was all of us damn fleas, us Negroes and Jews and low-life hoodlums, set on playing that vulgar racket, seducing sweet blond kids into corruption and sex. It wasn’t a music, it wasn’t a fad. It was a plague sent out by the dread black hordes, engineered by the Jews. Us Negroes, see, we was only half to blame—we just can’t help it. Savages just got a natural feel for filthy rhythms, no self-control to speak of. But the Jews, brother, now they cooked up this jungle music on purpose. All part of their master plan to weaken Aryan youth, corrupt its janes, dilute its bloodlines.”
First they’ve got to get out of Berlin, but they don’t all have passports or the necessary papers. Then, Louis Armstrong learns about them—and their incredible music—and he sends Delilah Brown, a young American woman, to help them escape. She’s white and has contacts to expedite their papers, but she’s only successful in getting out Hiero, Sid, and Chip—not the three other Germans. Their escape is an incredible ordeal, with jealousies developing between Sid and Hiero over Delilah. But they reach Paris and meet Armstrong, who regards Hiero (who plays the trumpet), as his successor.
The scenes in Paris are unforgettable—in large part because of the frenzy created by the approaching German invasion. There isn’t enough food, so the musicians mostly live on booze. They stay in an abandoned building, with the windows covered up, and listen to bombs going off in the distance. Then Armstrong convinces them that their music is so good that they need to cut a new record (though others were cut when they were still in Berlin). That’s when the tension gets ratcheted up, because Armstrong doesn’t want Sid (who plays the bass) to be part of the back-up. Chip (on the drums) is fine, and a couple of other musicians are brought in, but the intent is to feature Hiero’s amazing talents on the trumpet.
Conditions worsen and a later recording includes Sid, but the damage has already been done. Rivalry, jealousy, deception weaken the bonds of the three musicians, with Sid noting, “Did that scrawny Kraut bastard [Hiero] mean to take everything from me—the band, Armstrong, the recording, even Delilah? Ain’t he like to leave me no scraps? Is that what genius does—entitles a gate to claim whatever pieces of others’ lives he want?” But the final record is cut and although Hiero thinks it should be destroyed, Sid manages to salvage a copy—in spite of Hiero’s belief that it’s not good enough to be retained. Then they’ve got to flee Paris, and this time it’s Hiero who disappears.
Shift to 1992, years later, when a documentary has been made of Hieronymus Falk’s life, mostly because of the discovery of that final recording. Sid and Chip (who both live in the United States) fly to Berlin for the premier of the movie, the tension between the two of them palpable. They’re old men, hiding secrets of the past and the rivalries, deceits, and guilt over what happened during their last days in Paris, especially what happened to Delilah and to Hiero.
I’ve presented only the skeleton of Edugyan’s plot, filled with tension and surprises, and related in Sid’s colorful voice. The scenes of the jazz culture in Berlin just before Word War II are a revelation, especially the stories of the three German characters of the Hot-Time Swingers. I kept asking myself how Edugyan mastered the history of the time, the vocabulary of jazz musicians, the frenzy of people’s lives just before Europe fell apart. Half-Blood Blues is truly magnificent, especially for its revelations about race and the underground musical scene at a time most people where focused on their survival—not their musical souls.
By Esi Edugyan
Picador, 321 pp., $15
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.