For centuries, Africans in the New World have drawn sustenance from biblical stories detailing the exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. In mid-20th-century America, many Jews supported civil rights by marching alongside black demonstrators. Recent decades, however, have sometimes found these two peoples at odds, arguing over who has had it worse. It is a bewildering contest to say the least, for there has always been more than enough evil to go around.
Victoria writer Esi Edugyan reconciles these two haunted histories in a stunningly original work about black experience in Nazi Germany which was this week short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It's a second novel for Edugyan that, like her first, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, taps a rich, little-known vein of black history.
Set in Baltimore, Berlin and Paris, Half-Blood Blues spans from just after the Great War to the 1990s, but centres on the months leading up to the occupation of Paris. It chronicles the increasingly deadly trials of an interracial jazz band in which the lead musician, a German of African descent, is arrested by the Nazis.
Half-Blood Blues can be compared to a jazz symphony with discrete movements, shifting moods and a complex chorus of human and instrumental voices: It swings between present and past, North and South, East and West, black and white, art and violence, war and peace.
In 1939 Berlin, Sid Griffiths, an African-American bass player, and his friend, Chip Jones, belong to a popular jazz band. Composed of African-American and German musicians, the Hot Time Swingers play the city's clubs and cabarets. Eventually, Hieronymous Falk, a brilliant Afro-German trumpeter, joins the ensemble. He is the son of a French African soldier and a white German mother, a member of a despised population known as the Rhineland bastards. As the Nazi threat grows, Hiero's racial heritage places him in constant danger. To make matters worse, the Nazis label jazz the degenerate music of blacks and Jews.
After the band is involved in a fatal brawl, and the Nazis deport their Jewish piano player, Chip, Hiero and Sid flee to France. In Paris, where they believe they will be safe, they audition for Louis Armstrong. It is their dream come true. But French officials have already started rounding up Germans, and after the occupation, Nazis begin rounding up undesirables. Both developments place Hiero at risk.
Edugyan illustrates how the Germans treated blacks according to their nationality. African Americans – mainly artists and diplomats – could move about with the proper documents, while Hiero, a native of Germany, is considered a despicable outsider.
Canada exists far from the landscape of this novel, represented only by Delilah, from Montreal, with whom Sid falls in love. Nevertheless, key themes of black Canadian literature surface throughout, including the international nature of racism, the unpredictable treatment of blacks, the conundrum of biracial identity and the anxiety-inducing issue of passing.
Sid is a light-skinned black from Baltimore whose Virginia relatives have decided to pass for white. In Berlin, however, Sid's olive complexion makes him more suspect than the band's blond, blue-eyed pianist, who is Jewish. Still, Sid's light skin guarantees him greater privilege than either Chip or Hiero, both dark. Edugyan shuffles the race cards to illustrate the dizzying implications of various permutations of shade, nationality and ethnicity. At the same time, she subtly implies that the poignancy of Chip's and Hiero's racial experience informs their superior musical gifts.
The novel is narrated by Sid in a jazzy black vernacular full of bawdy wit and rough tenderness that may give some readers cause to quibble. Yet Edugyan's shaping of plot through voice and dialogue resembles a painter who models her subjects from whorls of colour. At times, Sid's voice feels limiting, for he is a slightly naive, moderately talented musician, full of insecurities and petty jealousies. Sid comes to resent Hiero for his extravagant gifts and for the special bond the young man shares with Delilah. His pettiness turns malevolent.
Edugyan's musically educated ear allows her to transpose notes into words and back again. Listen, then, to Hiero's duet with Armstrong: "It was the sound of the gods, all that brass. … Hiero thrown out note after shimmering note, like sunshine sliding all over the surface of a lake, Armstrong was the water, all depth and thought, not one wasted note. Hiero, he just reaching out, seeking the shore …"
Stranded in Paris, Hiero persuades Sid and Chip to record a song he calls Half-Blood Blues. Delilah finds them an ancient studio where they play take after glorious take. In a few days, Hiero would be captured by the Nazis. But "for that night at least," Sid recalls, "we was free."
Much of the power of this unforgettable novel comes from the way its racial themes echo. It is very difficult to perceive and articulate the twisted skein of emotion that is black experience – and yet that is just what Edugyan manages to do with this brilliantly conceived, gorgeously executed novel. It's a work that promises to lead black literature in a whole new direction.
Donna Bailey Nurse is the author of What's a Black Critic To Do? She is writing a literary memoir of the U.S. South.