Friday, July 3, 2015

The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway

My sister recommended this book to me after seeing my post on The Skeleton Road. Based on the true story of a cellist who played Albinoni's Adagio in a Sarajevo square each afternoon for 22 straight days during the civil war of the 1990s; he played to honor 22 friends and neighbors killed by a shell exploding in the market as the cellist practiced the Adagio in his nearby flat.

The cellist--his bravery and his music--have a profound effect on the three characters whose perspectives shape this brief novel. Kenan is a young man who must travel every few days to the brewery to get water for his family and his neighbor. Dragan is an older man, a baker, who sent his family to safety in Western Europe in the early days of the war, but Sarajevo is his home and he feels he cannot leave. He travels daily to the bakery, but despairs for his city. Arrow is a young woman recruited from her college's sharpshooting team to be a sniper for Bosnian Defense Forces who were trying to protect the city from the siege by Bosnian Serbs. Arrow has worked out a deal with her "handler" that she will choose her own targets (she will only target snipers/soldiers, never civilians). Then her handler asks her to protect the cellist from a sniper sent into the city by the opposition.

As Kenan, Dragan, and Arrow go about their perilous daily activities, they reflect on the possibility that their city will never recover, that they may be as responsible for its death as the snipers in the hills surrounding the city, that humans are, in fact, incapable of humanity. Yet the cellist and the Adagio suggest there may yet be hope, that the diverse beauty of Sarajevo may somehow survive.

The book has generated some controversy, including a claim that Galloway unfairly stole the story of the actual cellist, Vedran Smailovic (, and that he repeats the propaganda that unfairly vilifies the Bosnian Serbs ( The first complaint is understandable--most people would probably be irritated by seeing themselves turned into fiction--but that's what artists, including writers do. The second complaint I'm unqualified to evaluate, but from a rather uninformed point of view, I think Galloway is nearly as critical of the Bosnian military as the Serbs (by the way, I don't think he ever uses the word Serbs)--I read the book as a condemnation of war and hatred rather than of any particular group. But perhaps I am hopelessly naive.

At any rate, I found the book's depictions of the effects of war on "average" people and the redeeming power of music moving and well worth reading.

Favorite passages:
There are no grand moments where a person does or does not perform the act that defines their humanity. There are only moments that appear, briefly, to be this way.

Arrow let the slow pulse of the vibrating strings flood into her. She felt the lament raise a lump in her throat, fought back tears. She inhaled sharp and fast. Her eyes watered, and the notes ascended the scale. . . . The music demanded that she remember this, that she know to a certainty that the world still held the capacity for goodness. The notes were proof of that.

Because civilization isn't a thing that you build and then there it is, you have it forever. It needs to be built constantly, recreated daily. It vanishes far more quickly than he ever would have thought possible. And if he wishes to live, he must do what he can to prevent the world he wants to live in from fading away. As long as there's war, life is a preventative measure.

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