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[Monday Reading] The Beauty That Is Bosnia while being Fugitives in One’s Own Land in “Flowers for Sarajevo” and “The Cellist of Sarajevo”

The Beauty That Is Bosnia while being Fugitives in One's Own Land in "Flowers for Sarajevo" and "The Cellist of Sarajevo"


It's Monday! What Are You Reading

Myra here.

It’s Monday, What are You Reading is a meme hosted by Jen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers (new host of Monday reading: Kathryn T at Book Date). Since two of our friends, Linda from Teacher Dance and Tara from A Teaching Life have been joining this meme for quite awhile now, we thought of joining this warm and inviting community.

Before I share my reviews this week, allow me to invite you once again to join us for the Literary Voyage Around the World Reading Challenge 2018. Here is our Announcement Page which also contains detailed guidelines if you so decide to participate.

We will be giving away the following book prizes quarterly (with special thanks to Pansing) for those who have committed to reading the world along with us!

Let’s take a trip around the world in books!

These two beautiful narratives (the first review written by me, the other one by Fats) depict what it’s like to face constant trepidation brought about by war such that one feels almost like a “fugitive in one’s own land.”

Flowers For Sarajevo

Written By: John McCutcheon Illustrated by: Kristy Caldwell
Published by: Peachtree Publishers, 2017
ISBN: 1561459437 (ISBN13: 9781561459438)Borrowed from Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

Written from the perspective of a young boy named Drasko who helps out his father, Milo, sell their flowers in the marketplace, this is a searing portrayal of the tragic mortar attack in early May of 1992 which killed 22 people who were queuing up to buy bread in the market.

The story’s gradual build-up was highly effective in showing the innocence of everyday life as captured in mundane, routine tasks – and how it devolves oh-so-rapidly to a life that is mercilessly disrupted by violence, catastrophe, and uncertainty.

The focus of this narrative is not so much Vedran Smailovic, known to the world now as The Cellist of Sarajevo, but how his courage and the beauty of his music awakened something within Drasko, enabling him to continue on keeping on despite the hole in his heart.

As found in the Author’s Note:

In writing this book I decided to focus not on Vedran, but on the effect his actions had on others. Heroism has many facets. Not everyone will brave the bullets of a war-torn street. But we are each capable of finding that beauty, that kindness within ourselves that violence and hatred seek to destroy. In a world in which fear has become the dominant weapon of the weak, it is precisely this kind of defiance that will deny victory to the forces of evil.

I did not expect this book to affect me the way that it did. But I was immensely moved by this narrative that demonstrated courage, beauty, strength of purpose – without articulating all those words. One could simply feel it through Drasko’s resolve mirrored by this undaunted musician who found – and created – beauty in the Sarajevo rubble.

I searched for the music that Vedran Smailovic played each day for 22 days without fail, in honour of those who died in the bombing, on Youtube. May you find flowers blooming in your heart as you listen.

This was originally posted by Fats back in 2010, but I thought I’d resurrect and share her glowing and detailed review here as a way of pairing it with the picturebook above:

Fats here.

The Cellist of Sarajevo

Written By: Steven Galloway
Published by: Text Publishing Company, 2009 (first published in 2008)
ISBN: 1921520159 (ISBN13: 9781921520150)Literary Prizes: Borders Original Voices Award for Fiction (2008), Scotiabank Giller Prize Nominee (2008), Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize Nominee (2009), Sakura Medal Nominee for High School Book (2010), OLA Evergreen Award (2009)

“…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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Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Singapore. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she serves as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads or meeting up with her book club friends, she is smashing that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life.

8 comments on “[Monday Reading] The Beauty That Is Bosnia while being Fugitives in One’s Own Land in “Flowers for Sarajevo” and “The Cellist of Sarajevo”

  1. Pussreboots

    I read The Bone Sparrow earlier this year and still need to post my review. I had some problems with the book. I’m curious what you thought of it. Come see what I’m reading


  2. Thanks Myra and Fats for sharing these books. I remember that time, a terrible time for those there, and after the world had seen such beauty in the earlier Olympics in SaraJevo.


  3. The cover of Flowers is beautiful. I think this has been calling out to me.


  4. I loved Flowers for Sarajevo! Thanks for including the video and information about The Cellist of Sarajevo. I’m looking forward to checking it out. Happy Holidays!


  5. These books take me back in time. I thought we’d never see horrors like that again, but…here we are. Sigh.


  6. crbrunelle

    I found the book to be beautiful, powerful and very moving.


  7. Sarajevo is an amazing subject, and I really enjoyed both reviews of such different books. Thank you for sharing.


  8. Pingback: [BHE 300] Picturebook Finds from the Library (Part One of Two) – Gathering Books

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