HALF-BLOOD BLUES, by Esi Edugyan. Picador, 319 pp., $15 paper.
"Half-Blood Blues" takes its title from a jazz disc that doesn't exist, but you wish you could hear anyway. It was, according to Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan's version of 20th century European history, secretly recorded in Paris just before the Nazis triumphantly roared through the French capital in June 1940. Two black Baltimore expatriates, Charles "Chip" Jones and Sid Griffiths, played drums and bass, respectively. On lead trumpet was a gifted 20-year-old prodigy named Hieronymus "Hiero" Falk, the offspring of an African father and German mother.
After the German invasion was complete, Chip and Sid were able to get out of Europe while Hiero, being a mixed-race (hence, "impure") Rhinelander, was arrested by the SS and never heard from again. Sid, whose bitter voice narrates the story, later hears reports that Falk was imprisoned in an Austrian work camp and died shortly after the war, as if "his suffering finally got to him or its sudden absence, the world strangely greyer afterwards with its safe, empty routines."
And that's that. Until 1992, when Chip, who's with Sid on tour in a reunified Germany on behalf of a documentary about Hiero, discloses that he'd recently heard from Falk, alive and apparently well. This opens up a torrent of vivid, painful memories for Sid, who knows more than he can bear to admit about Hiero's capture -- and how his own thwarted passion for a sultry blues singer named Delilah Brown ("sweet like lemon in a wound") figured in the tragedy.
Winner of Canada's top literary award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and shortlisted for England's Man Booker Prize, "Half-Blood Blues" represents a bold imagining of a hitherto little-regarded corner of the black Diaspora, namely in a 1930s Weimar Republic whose cross-cultural jazz scene disgusted Hitler (or as Sid refers to him, "The Housepainter") and his followers.
Edugyan seasons her hard-boiled romance with evocative depictions of European landscapes before World War II and after the Cold War. She also brings in such real-life personages as philosopher / resistance fighter Simone Weil, expatriate trumpeter Bill Coleman (who's also on that mythical eponymous disc) and Louis Armstrong, whose duet with Hiero makes the pages levitate: "Hiero thrown out note after shimmering note, like sunshine sliding all over the surface of a lake, and Armstrong was the water, all depth and thought, not one wasted note."
That passage should give you a taste of the book's not-always-seamless melange of the colloquial and lyrical as filtered through Sid. And every once in a while, there's an anachronism poking through that makes you go "Ouch." (I doubt very much that the term, "Afro," as used to describe a hairstyle, was in common usage before 1968; certainly not when Sid and Chip were children.) Nevertheless, you're encouraged to forgive such lapses by Edugyan's passion for the music and compassion for her characters -- even though Hieronymous Falk remains as frustrating and as fascinating a mystery to us in the end as he does throughout the story, even to those who cry when he blows his horn.