The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

Fats here.

“…at four o’ clock in the afternoon, twenty-four hours after the mortar fell on his friends and neighbors while they waited to buy bread, he will bend down and pick up his bow. He will carry his cello and stool down the narrow flight of stairs to the empty street. The war will go on around him as he sits in the small crater left at the mortar’s point of impact. He’ll play Albinoni’s Adagio. He’ll do this every day for twenty-two days, a day for each person killed. Or at least he’ll try. He won’t be sure he will survive. He won’t be sure he has enough Adagios left.” – The cellist, xviii-xix

Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo is the third historical fiction book I read since Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. I intentionally postponed reading Walter Moers’s The City of Dreaming Books because I was still at the height of my historical fiction madness.

The Cellist of Sarajevo is based on a little incident during that period in history known as the Siege of Sarajevo. Considered as “the longest city siege in the history of modern warfare, [The Siege of Sarajevo] stretched from April 5, 1992 to February 29, 1996. The United Nations estimates that approximately 10,000 people were killed and 56,000 wounded. An average of 329 shells hit the city each day, with a one-day high of 3,777 [shells] on July 22, 1993.”

Although the book was named after the cellist, the story was told in the alternating perspectives of three strangers: a bakery worker, a young father, and a lady sniper. The cellist’s story appeared only once – in the prologue – and he was mentioned a few times in the latter parts of the book. The interesting part of the story was the one about the sniper being given the special task of keeping the cellist alive.

Arrow will keep this man alive. This wasn’t ever really in doubt, but neither had she decided she would do it. Now, as she sits where he sits, she tells herself that she will not allow this man to die. He will finish what he’s doing. It isn’t important whether she understands what he’s doing or why he’s doing it. She does understand it’s important, and that is enough.

If The Cellist of Sarajevo were to be made into a film, it would most likely end up being a series of montage, representing the narratives of the three strangers. The stories were independent of each other, yet bound by the siege and the cellist’s Adagio. If you could endure long narratives with little conversation, then you would most definitely survive this book. (Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Albert Camus flashed into mind while reading the book.) The first dialogue in the book does not appear until page 16.

In addition to its almost pure narrative format, The Cellist of Sarajevo evokes a sense of nostalgia as the strangers recalled experiences associated with certain places in the city prior to the siege. What I liked about the book is how the war resembles that of a slow-motion sequence, in which time slows down, and an entire chapter is dedicated to only a fraction of a scene. The following passage was taken from Dragan’s – the bakery worker – story:

Sarajevo was a great city for walking. It was impossible to get lost. If you didn’t know where you were, you just went downhill until you hit the river, and from there it would all be obvious. If you got tired you could sit in a cafe and have a coffee, or, if you were hungry, stop for a small restaurant for a meat pie. People were happy. Life was good. This is, at least, how Dragan remembers it.

The events that took place in the first half of the book happened in one day, and the remaining half stretched it to about a week. All four strangers were trying to live their lives one day at a time, doing the only things they knew how to do. In a way, I sympathize with the characters, especially with Kenan and Dragan. I could not bring myself to imagine how one ends up “living like fugitives in their homeland.” In one of Dragan’s narratives, I quote,

Since the war began Dragan has seen three people killed by snipers. What suprised him the most was how quickly it all happens. One moment the people are walking or running through the street, and then they drop as though they were marionettes and their puppeteer has fainted. As they fall, there’s a sharp crack of gunfire, and everyone in the area seeks cover. After a few minutes, though, things seem to go back to what they call normal. The bodies are recovered, if possible, and the wounded are taken away. No one has any way of knowing if the sniper who fired is still there or if he has moved, but everyone behaves as though he has gone until the next time he fires, and the cycle repeats itself.

It is one thing to witness your city being ravaged by war; it is another to live in fear every moment of your life. It’s the same way as saying that, sometimes, fear is what destroys the soul of an individual – the soul of a people (Anwar Sadat). It’s not entirely the war that destroys, although the book illustrates how war changes one’s outlook on life, humanity, and morality. In Arrow’s narrative in part three, she contemplates: Does she think she is good because she kills bad men? Is she? Does it matter why she kills them? She knows she no longer kills them because they are killing her fellow citizens. That’s just a part of it. She kills them because she hates them. Does the fact that she has good reason to hate them absolve her? A month ago she would have answered yes… Now she wonders who decides what is a good reason and what isn’t.

I started reading The Cellist of Sarajevo with gusto, but I got lost in the latter part of the book because I was reading without comprehension. (Apparently I was more excited to finish the book than to contemplate on the questions and issues raised by the story.) The prospect of a woman being a sniper – and a very good one at that – excites me. Something about girl power in the midst of a war. I also find the story of Sarajevo itself quite fascinating if not implausible. In fact, I would not have known that Sarajevo exists had I not chanced upon this book.

Again, if long narratives do not appeal to you, then do not waste your money on this book. However, if you’re interested in a novel that gives a fresh portrayal of war, loss, and the triumph of the human soul, then give The Cellist of Sarajevo a chance. Steven Galloway’s knack for words might appeal to you – as it did to me, in some way.

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  1. The Indomitable Power of the Human Spirit in “The Little Yellow Bottle” and “The Cello of Mr. O” | Gathering Books

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