Haunted by Hieronymus: – Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Half-Blood BluesHalf-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

An atmospheric look at music, memory and the lengths people go for art, recognition and survival, Esi Edugyan’s novel Half-Blood Blues is a stark look at the start of World War II.

It follows jazz bassist Sidney Griffiths, who played 1930s Berlin nightclubs and cabarets but abandoned music after bandmate Hieronymus Faulk died in the Holocaust. Yet Faulk lives on in the titular Half-Blood Blues recording, on an acetate record Griffiths smuggled out of the country. It’s a complicated relationship, even before Edugyan gets into their shared past.

It also jumps forward to 1992, when Griffiths and drummer Chip Jones travel to Europe for a festival dedicated to Faulk and try to figure out what the trumpeter’s fate exactly was. But while it’s part detective story and part historical novel, dabbling into seedy Berlin nightclubs and wartime Paris, with a cameo from Louis Armstrong, it’s also an extended mediation on the nature of music and art. Where does talent come from? Can it ever really vanish? And how far is too far in going to make sure it doesn’t slip away?

Edugyan switches back and forth between the two periods nearly effortlessly. When she moves to 1992, Griffiths speaks with a voice so old and rickety the dust flies from it. And when she moves to the eve of World War II, the story drips with tension and fear as these musicians hide under stages, wade through crowds in Paris and record in an abandoned studio.

For me, the novel really took off when Edugyan started working the personal angles: Faulk seemed to come out of nowhere with an immense talent; Griffiths has worked on his bass playing for nearly his whole life, but is nowhere near as skillful. Women come into the picture, too, and are also drawn to the fragile, mysterious Faulk; needless to say, the insecure Griffiths resents this, too.

But there’s a lot here to chew on and Edugyan never shies away from the grittier parts of history. For example, as the Nazi stranglehold on culture increases, so do the small, compounding comprises everyday Germans make in their lives. Take the section when Griffiths remembers a once-friendly German music critic:

“Then come ’33. Seeing his teaching days at the Lepzig Conservatory done for, he suddenly change his suit. I remember the first day I seen him in the street and he just cross to the other side, like he ain’t heard me hollering at him. We was ‘aural vermin’ after that…” (pg 98)

Her book is a sobering reminder of the many compromises people took, each one slowly stripping citizens of their rights, dignity and eventually, their lives (I was vaguely reminded of Hitler’s Willing Executioners, a book I skimmed years and years ago). When Germans hiss at Griffiths in 1992, it’s hard not to be appalled by their self-serving, two-faced attitude.

Rating 8/10. Stunningly written, equally haunting and engrossing, Edugyan’s novel is a great read, a book I barely put down. I picked this up because it a was a finalist in the 2014 Canada Reads competition and I’m glad I did. Recommended.




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