Half Blood Blues – Esi Edugyan

Folks think a lifetime is a thing stretched out over years. It ain’t. It can happen quick as a match in a dark room.

Nazi-occupied Paris, 1940. Hiero, mixed-heritage born to a German mother and an African father, and Sid, Baltimore born and light-skinned enough to pass as white, head out to a café for breakfast. But Hiero’s got no papers and when the Nazis enter the café, he’s taken. As this happens, Sid’s making his way back from the basement toilet and sees it occurring from a safe spot on the stairs.

Hiero and Sid are part of a jazz band, along with Chip, another Baltimore born black man and Sid’s oldest friend. They’ve been recording with Bill Coleman.

But Hiero, wiping his horn with a blacked-up handkerchief, he turn and give Chip a look of pure spite. ‘Yeah, but, hell. Even at our worst we genius.’

Did that ever stun me, him saying this. For weeks the kid been going on about how dreadful we sound. He kept snatching up the discs, scratching the lacquer with a pocket knife, wrecking them. Yelling how there wasn’t nothing there. But there was something. Some seed of twisted beauty.

I didn’t mean to. But somehow when the kid turned his back I was sliding off my vest, taking the last disc – still delicate, the grooves still new – and folding the fabric round it. I glanced around, nervous, then tucked it into my basscase.

The novel disorders the chronology of events, moving forward to Berlin in 1992 when Sid is 83 and Chip 85 and backwards to Berlin in 1939 and then events in Paris in 1939 before Hiero’s arrest.

In 1992, Sid and Chip return to Berlin for a screening of a documentary about Hieronymus Falk. Hiero’s assumed dead, having survived Mauthausen but disappearing not long after being released but the night before they travel to Berlin, Chip reveals Hiero’s alive and living in Poland. He’s written to Chip asking him to visit. Chip had a second career following the rediscovery of the disc Sid kept back in 1940.

And, well, it made Hiero one of the most famous jazz trumpeters of his generation.

The kid’s existence might’ve been a fiction we’d all cooked up if that disc hadn’t survived. Today you ain’t no kind of horn player you don’t acknowledge some debt to Hieronymus Falk. He was one of the pioneers: a German Louis Armstrong, if you will. Wynton Marsalis praised Falk as one of the reasons he started playing at all: ‘Hearing Falk – man, that was it. It just blew my mind out. I was just a kid, but even then I knew I was hearing genius. His brilliance was that obvious.’

During the film, Sid begins to feel that something’s not right. This feeling builds until the point when Chip comes on screen and accuses Sid of betraying Hiero of practically handing him over to the Nazis because he was jealous of him – jealous of his talents and jealous of his relationship with Delilah, the woman Sid loved.

The rest of the novel explores this – was Sid jealous? What role did Delilah play? Why did the band only make one recording? What was life like in Berlin and Paris for black jazz musicians as the Second World War began? It’s also a book about male friendship in different forms. Chip is stuffed with bravado, cocky and determined to have the upper hand; Hiero is young and seems vulnerable, looking to Sid as an older brother; Sid fluctuates from jealously to wanting to protect his friends. However, when the extent of Sid’s actions are revealed, it’s a truly shocking moment.

Edugyan conveys Chip and Sid’s accents through the use of some grammar and vocabulary consistent with African American Vernacular English – ‘We ain’t get no…’, ‘…through a arched entrance hall…’. While restricting Hiero to only being able to speak German (rendered in English) and Sid as the only English and German speaker means that information can be miscommunicated when Sid translates.

Half Blood Blues is a gripping novel driven by the fear that members of the band could be taken at any moment; the excitement surrounding Hiero who is hailed by everyone including Louis Armstrong who puts in a guest appearance in Paris, and the tension between Chip and Sid in the (close to) present day chapters. A well structured, entertaining read.