Fiction Review by Susan Braley

Esi Edugyan, Half-Blood Blues (Toronto: Thomas Allen, 2011). Paperbound, 311 pp., $24.95.Half Blood Blues

“It was the sound of the gods, all that brass.” In Half-Blood Blues, Hiero’s horn soars, and so does the language. Like music itself, Edugyan’s prose transports us—to the oranges in the market on the pitted remains of the Wall; to the sheer “length and grace” of the shorn Delilah; to the Mischling playing Wagner’s Lohengrin at a Nazi camp. But Edugyan also delivers the sound of ghosts.

When half-black Sid Griffiths recounts the journey of the lost recording, “Half-Blood Blues,” he calls it a ghost story. This missing music is not the only ghost in the novel. In 1992, Sid, who left music decades before, opens his door to Chip Jones, a former band mate. Chip coaxes Sid to the opening of a documentary film featuring Hiero, a member of their once-famous band. This section of the narrative is a little too material, weighed down—like its aging characters—by the “brick and mortar” of history. However, the pace quickens when, in the film, Chip alleges that Sid allowed the young and gifted Hiero, also a half-blood, to be arrested and locked away by the Nazis. At that moment, the post-war self that Sid has built erodes, “like I ain’t even there no more.”

The two men travel to post-Communist Poland to find Hiero and “make things right,” first in a “fish-grey” car and later in a murky bus with axles hissing like asps—two of several Charon-like vehicles in the novel. Chip, “an ancient old raisin of a man,” whose real name is Charles, is an iteration of the underworld ferryman, who delivers Sid to Hiero, a ghost now resurrected. But the larger story emerges in their shared past, when they are all forced to live as phantoms.

In 1939, Berlin is “a locked room” for shunned black musicians, and the Hound, a shut-down nightclub, “a closet of ghosts.” Sid observes “how small we come to be these last months…we slunk in the shadows, squeamish of the light.” For Edugyan, these shadow-musicians are the bearers of the unspoken stories of Nazi persecution against “persons of Negro descent”: seized and beaten in the streets, turned in by café patrons, displayed in cultural zoos, force-fed saltpetre in detention. As J. A. Weinstock observes in Spectral America, phantoms such as these are “symptoms of repressed knowledge …signal[ling] epistemological uncertainty and the potential emergence of a different story and a competing history.” The uncertainty in Half-Blood Blues is identity itself. Sid and Delilah, who can “pass as white,” worry that someone will see the “ghostly rye” of their skins or doubt the identity cards forged for them. Hiero, a half-blood whose skin is black, is pursued for his race in Germany and later, in France, for his German heritage. Similarly, Jewish band member Paul Butterstein, whose fair hair and blue eyes have allowed him to move about as “the perfect Aryan man,” is charged with “race pollution” and consigned to oblivion in a concentration camp. The liminality of Edugyan’s characters, who have to “pass right out of their own skins” to survive, calls attention to the brutality of Nazi deselection and erasure. Yet these musicians undermine the authorized and dichotomous story running parallel to their closeted existence. With a fictionalized Louis Armstrong, they rework the Horst Wessel song, enshrined by the Nazis as a patriotic anthem, to create a “twist[ed]” alternate track in their forbidden musical form. In this recording, these shadows find voices to “say somethin…to the whole world, to the Krauts, that only us cats can say.” However, their song is condemned to ghostliness for two decades; Delilah’s copies are confiscated and Sid’s stolen disc, hidden in his instrument case, melts onto the bass strings.

Ironically, the tyranny of the Nazis, or “Boots” haunts the musicians even as they set out to deflect it. Early in the novel, in the decidedly Stygian fog of the now-empty Jewish baths, they diminish each other with racist and homophobic jabs. When Armstrong excludes Sid from the group creating “Half-Blood Blues,” Sid’s seething jealousy of Hiero, whom he calls “Judas,” turns him into a persecutor: “Did that scrawny Kraut bastard mean to take everything from me—the band, Armstrong, the recording, even Delilah?” By hiding the forged visa for Hiero and keeping him in Paris, Sid hopes he can maneuver his way into playing on the recording and lay some claim to its success. In effect, Sid consigns the faultless Hiero to indefinite invisibility, if not death, in a Nazi prison camp. As narrator, Sid is far from faultless (although all narrators grasp at half-truths): he allows gaps in his story, just as he omits parts of Armstrong’s compliments when he translates them for Hiero. At first, he admits only that he was too paralyzed to act when Hiero was arrested; he bristles at Chip’s incriminating remarks in the documentary, but his failure to protect Paul and his betrayal of Hiero are much more egregious. He elides the complexity of Delilah, an artist herself, reducing her to a source of sexual or maternal comfort. Edugyan herself narrows Delilah’s role to that of an almost otherworldly emissary moving between the musicians’ borderland and the dangerous cities beyond their reach. Often clothed in “radiant” white garments and a white headdress, Delilah prefigures the starkly symbolic conclusion of the novel. Despite the power she exercises, her baldness evokes the shaved heads of death-camp inmates.

The white-haired, opal-eyed Hiero, who resurfaces in the “reborn” Poland of 1992, takes up her mantle in the final section. Like Delilah, he extends warmth and compassion to Sid and Chip, and prefers a life of giving rather than the “taking” jazz demanded. He is at peace, the ghosts of his past exorcised into “nightmarish” iron sculptures he has created on his property. Sid is overwhelmed by this Brechtian tableau, a visual alternative to his own narrative; in fact, in the final scenes, Edugyan’s visionary prose eclipses Sid’s voice as she delivers the “unseen country” Hiero has built. Reminiscent of the blind-yet-seeing, double-gendered prophet Tiresias, Hiero responds to Sid’s confession by playing old music in an unknown language, an anthem to light and “stunning wholeness.” Then, as if offering a benediction, he reanimates the “emptied” Sid: “I see you Sid…. I see you like it was fifty years ago. Exactly like that.”

—Susan Braley

As in The Malahat Review, 178, Spring 2012, 98-100