Book review: In Esi Edugyan's "Half-Blood Blues," a 2011 Man Booker Prize finalist, old friends struggle through the chaos of Nazi Germany.
Some places are absolutely wrong — and exactly right. Consider Berlin, 1939, for two African-American musicians. In Esi Edugyan’s “Half-Blood Blues” (Picador, 336 pp., $15), we feel the texture of a city tipping from tolerance to oppression.
Sid Griffiths, a bass player, and Chip Jones, a drummer, have spent 10 years riding the wave of popularity for American jazz. Despite the Nazis, their American citizenship and the popularity of their music have made life pretty good.
Now the Nazis are becoming more assertive, and their piano player, Paul Butterstein, is a German Jew. Worse yet — and also better — they join ranks with a young trumpet player who is a genius, perhaps the equal of Louis Armstrong, living like a king in Paris. But their new band mate is a “mischling,” a German born of a white mother and a black father, and so a taint on Aryan purity.
This youth, Hiero, still in his teens, makes the band a sensation and an affront.
Most Read Stories
To the Nazis, jazz is “a plague sent out by the dread black hordes, engineered by the Jews” to seduce “sweet blond kids into corruption and sex.” The “sweet blond kids” buy records and go to clubs, and as their enthusiasm increases, so does the rage of the Nazis.
For Sid and Chip, it’s only dangerous enough to add a frisson of excitement. For Paul, their pianist, it’s a mortal threat. As Sid, our narrator, explains the Nazi point of view: “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.”
Enter Delilah, an associate of the great Armstrong, who offers the band a chance to come to Paris, where they can record their masterpiece, a jazz rendition of the “Horst Wessel Song.”
In Berlin, such a treatment of the Nazi anthem would be suicide. Even in Paris, this offer brings problems. They aren’t sure they can trust Delilah. And Delilah herself is a disruption because, as Sid falls in love with her, she falls in love with Hiero. In addition, Sid recognizes himself as the least talented in the ensemble, and his resentment focuses on the greatest, young Hiero. “Cause I admit it,” Sid says. “He got genius, he got genius in spades. Cut him in half, he still worth three of me. It ain’t fair. It ain’t fair that I struggle and struggle to sound just second-rate, and the damn kid just wake up, spit through his horn, and it sing like nightingales.” Among the many dangers is that Sid may play Salieri to Hiero’s Mozart.
The story hurls us from Baltimore, to Berlin, to Paris, to an obscure Polish town — as breathlessly as that trumpet player finishing a long, heartfelt riff. From bleak, violent cityscapes, it shifts to the troubled souls of the musicians as they tend the pure flame of art and the impure fire of jealousy. It’s history, and it’s timeless.