The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 235 pages
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The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway is a truncated look at the siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s that lasted about three years, though in this novel, it is reduced to about 30 days.  While the cellist is a real individual, Galloway has crafted him into a larger-than-life character, who signifies the hope that the people of Sarajevo cling to even in the face of dead bodies left to rot in the streets.  In addition to the cellist, who is more of an abstraction than a character with his own perspective, there is Arrow, a young, female sniper, Kenan, who has a wife and three children to care for, and Dragan, an older man who works at the local bakery.  Through alternating chapters, the fear and angst felt by these characters becomes heightened for the reader as they watch people fall to their knees after snipers shoot them or as the shelling begins and their own lives are at the mercy of chance.  The novel has a heavy atmosphere, a gray smoldering that permeates through the pages, weighing down the characters, slumping their shoulders and pushing them into darker places.

“If this city is to die, it won’t be because of the men on the hills, it will be because of the people in the valley.” (page 213)

Arrow has joined the resistance to fight against those that wish to destroy her people and the city, but while she’s been given free rein to choose her own military targets, things are about to change for her, and the hatred she feels for “them” — who are never clearly defined — becomes a motivator and a detriment to her.  Her character is pushed to the limit and she’s forced to make a decision that could be detrimental — a move that was rather dramatic and a bit predictable.  Kenan, meanwhile, is merely striving to keep his family alive, running to the brewery with his water containers to ensure they have enough to get through the next couple of weeks.  He makes these trips trembling in fear, but the fear only momentarily paralyzes him as he remembers the life before the siege and what life would be like without it.  He holds onto his daydreams of a family engrossed in its daily chores and entertainments, and keeps moving.  Dragan has been traveling to the bakery in solitude, rarely speaking to strangers and nearly always avoiding conversation with those he knew before the siege, cutting himself off.  Readers spend a great deal of time with him at an intersection where people are forced to take chances with their lives when they cross — some running, some sauntering, and some zigzagging across.

“‘Give Raza my love,’ she says, leaning in and hugging him.  She feels warm and substantial, much larger than when he hugged her only a short time ago.  She has become real to him again.” (page 115-6)

Galloway’s novel is about what it means to be in the midst of war, without understanding the reasons behind it, and yet, still facing the violence on a daily basis.  Readers will be required to ask themselves what is important, and to draw their own conclusions about why the cellist sits at 4 p.m. for 22 days to play Albinoni’s Adagio — the site of a mortar shelling where 22 people were killed while waiting in line for bread. Although lacking actual political/sociological motivations and the time line of the siege, Galloway seems to have a handle on the range of emotions and reactions people can have in war — whether it be a focus on hatred and revenge or the dissociation people can feel from their own country men in the face of uncertainty and death. The Cellist of Sarajevo is a novel in simple prose that belies the complexity of the moral and emotional issues it addresses.

About the Author:

Steven Galloway was born in Vancouver, and raised in Kamloops, British Columbia. He attended the University College of the Cariboo and the University of British Columbia. His debut novel, Finnie Walsh, was nominated for the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award. His second novel, Ascension, was nominated for the BC Book Prizes’ Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and has been translated into numerous languages. His third novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo, was published in spring of 2008. It was heralded as “the work of an expert” by the Guardian, and has become an international bestseller with rights sold in 20 countries. Galloway has taught creative writing at the University of British Columbia.

What the Book Club Thought:

Even though three members were unable to make the meeting, those that were able to attend seemed to like the novel, with one member saying that it was an easy and short read. Two members liked the POV of Arrow best, while one seemed to like both Arrow and Dragan and another preferred Kenan. One member believed that Kenan was the most human of the characters because of his interactions with other people throughout his travels to get water, while another thought that Dragan was more realistic in his detachment from others because of the harshness of war and the constant fear the residents endured. Arrow’s POV was more active, and one member enjoyed the use of strategy she employed in her efforts to protect the cellist. It seems as though this book was well received among the members in attendance.

This is my 78th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.