As one reads Half-Blood Blues, the terse, vivid vernacular of the aging Baltimorian light-skinned “black,” Sidney Griffiths, the first person narrator of Esi Edugyan’s Giller-winning novel, becomes a captivating force. A powerfully persuasive instrument, the bassist’s laconic voice boldly sings throughout this novel.
Early in the book, a young virtuoso horn player and fellow musician, Heironymus Falk (Hiero, or “the kid”), is arrested and abducted by the Gestapo in occupied Paris, 1940. Sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp (used for labour extermination of the intelligentsia), Heiro is believed dead by his bandmates. Sid feels guilt and helplessness, particularly as Hiero does not give away his own presence to the Nazis.
To be black in Paris under the Nazi occupation was to live in perpetual fear, with or without identity papers, even for fair-skinned Sid. Someone like Hiero, a half-blood — half German, half Sengalese — is seen by the Germans as tainted, impure — a mongrel, micshling. Which is what the Nazis think of jazz; because it is often created by blacks and Jews, Nazis believe jazz to be a suspicious and corrupting music.
The brilliant conceit by Edugyan, whereby the creation and recording of one 3 minute and 33 second jazz number (“Half-Blood Blues”) provides a haunting metaphor for the chaos of war, is starkly delivered in visceral, vibrant prose. The survival of the recording is the mystery, the miracle and, eventually, the possibility for redemption within the narrative. Jazz music as the document of memory, of authenticity.
The survival of Hiero is another matter. Only much later does the reader learn that Sid’s guilt is caused by his betrayal of his friend – arguably the ultimate betrayal. Or is it? Edugyan invites us into Sid’s mind and we soon like him all too well. Yet, by the end of Half-Blood Blues, we are questioning whether this musician was a true artist who makes a sacrifice for the sake of art, or merely a weak man jealous of a gifted artist while pretending to be his protector and friend. Or is Sid simply driven temporarily mad by jealousy, lost love, an imputed lack of talent, and by Hiero’s crazed drive to create the perfect recording, destroying every cut version even as they finish it? All of Edugyan’s characters place the creation of jazz on a plateau higher than health, wealth, friendship, or safety. How much ambition is too much ambition?
Then there is the mounting theme of racism and the murky, dangerous politics of hue and blood:
The tall Boot done soften his voice, too. It was odder than odd: these Boots was so courteous, so upstage in their behavior, they might’ve been talking bout the weather. Nothing like how they’d behaved in Berlin. There was even a weak apology in their gestures, like they was gentlemen at heart, and only rough times forced them to act this way. And this politeness, this quiet civility, it scared me more than outright violence. It seemed a newer kind of brutality.
Edugyan illustrates that racism IS war, but perpetrated in vile, casual, slyly cutting words meant to destroy people from the inside, and also inpassively violent displays such as Sid found in Hamburg at the Hagenbecks, a “green, shady park” where Hiero takes him to show him the “dangerous animals”:
Black folk. Barefoot dressed in rags and bones. A group of jacks squatted on flat rocks in the mud, smoking crude pipes, discs hanging from their huge earlobes.” “They keep people here? (Sid exclaimed) “They got one for Samoans, for Esquimaux.”… “A human zoo,” I mumbled. “Shit.”
Examining the atrocities of racism in a direct manner, this moment is perhaps the most unsettling of the entire novel. Both Sid and Hiero are rendered near speechlessness by this outrage.
As Edugyan narrows to her close, the novel has delivered a stylistic coup de grace, showcasing such an understanding of jazz, and the ability to aptly describe it, that this reader was firmly in thrall. Half-Blood Blues delivers overwhelming achievements in style, language, plot, characterization, mood, depth. Edugyan closes on a moment of grace:
Maybe I was just finally forgiving myself for it. For failing. Maybe that was the sound of forgiveness I heard in my old axe. Cause that night, swinging by candlelight in that cramped room…we was all of us free, brother. For that night at least, we was free.
Esi Edugyan has written a bold, brilliant, passionate novel exploring the search for dignity in times where dignity, and too often life itself, was refused or denied by madmen to those human beings who were deemed to be of the “wrong” race or of “mixed” blood. Not since reading Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things have I enjoyed a novel so thoroughly. Yet, as of February, 2011, Edugyan had yet to find a publisher for her now celebrated novel. Today, less than one year later, Half-Blood Blues has been nominated for several awards besides the Giller it has won, including a nomination for the Man Booker prize. What does this say of the publishing industry today? What does it say to writers? Go with your instincts and do not give up. Bravo.
A jazz and blues aficionado, Kate Orland Bere is a Montreal fiction writer currently working on her first novel and a collection of short stories.