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Saturday, March 08, 2014

The Cellist of Sarajevo

Arrow is a young woman and a sharpshooter. Kenan is husband to Amila; father to two daughters Aida and Sanja, and son Mak; and neighbour to Mrs. Ristovski. Dragan is middle aged, alone. His wife Raza and their 18-year-old son have escaped the madness that enveloped Sarajevo when the Serbian forces laid a siege around the city between 1992 and 1996 – the longest siege in the history of modern warfare.

Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo is the story of Arrow, Kenan and Dragan as they come to terms with the reality of a war ravaged city that they have lived all their lives. The novel narrates the different ways in which these three civilians come to terms with their radically altered circumstances during the siege.

To Galloway’s credit, nowhere in the novel does he ever mention the siege from a macro perspective – Serbian forces that surrounded the outlying hills of Sarajevo are never named, and neither are the Bosnian government defense forces named.

The novel shows there isn’t too much to choose between the attackers and the defenders, and depicts the daily trauma of living in the city that is changing forever, its inhabitants slowly wilting, decaying, and disintegrating.

Arrow, the reluctant sniper, who is tasked with protecting the cellist who decides to play his cello for 22 days to commemorate the death by mortar shelling of 22 people who had lined up to buy bread, regrets Sarajevo’s transformation.

“The Sarajevo she fought for was one where you didn’t have to hate a person because of what they were. It didn’t matter what you were, what your ancestors had been, or what your children would be. You could hate a person for what they did. You could hate a murderer, you could hate a rapist, and you could hate a thief. This is what first drove her to kill the men on hills, because they were all these things. But now, she knows, she’s driven mainly by a hatred of them, the idea of them as a group, and not by their actions.”

The three characters in Galloway’s novel seem to derive inspiration from the cellist and resist the all-pervading sense of gloom that has engulfed the city.

Listening to the cellist play, Kenan is transported into a different era, an era of peace. As the cellist plays, “(T)he building behind the cellist repairs itself. The scars of bullets and shrapnel are covered by plaster and paint, and windows reassemble, clarify and sparkle as the sun reflects off glass. The cobblestone of the road set themselves straight. Around him people stand up taller, their faces put on weight and colour. Clothes gain lost thread, brighten, smooth out their wrinkles.”

Dragan, caught in a sniper crossfire that hits Emina, an acquaintance, and kills a stranger.
“Was being killed really better than being wounded? He isn’t so sure now. The idea of knowing the moment of your death is imminent no longer seem so bad compared with an instantaneous ending. Emina will survive, of this he feels confident, but if she didn’t, if she were more seriously wounded, wouldn’t it be better to get one last look at the world, even a grey and spoiled vision, than to plunge without warning into darkness?

“What makes the difference, he realizes, is whether you want to stay in the world you live in. Because while he will always be afraid of death and nothing can change that, the question is whether your life is worth that fear. Do you face the terror that must come with knowing you’re about to die, just for the sake of one last glimpse of life? Dragan is surprised to find his answer is yes.”

Then later, he realizes that giving up would mean defeat.

“Dragan doesn’t want to go to Italy. He misses his wife and son, but he isn’t Italian, and he never will be. There’s no country he can go to where he won’t be from Sarajevo. This is his home, and this is the city he wants to be in. He doesn’t want to live under siege for the rest of this life, but to abandon the city to the men on the hills would mean that he would be forever homeless.”

The significance of the novel is that what happened to Sarajevo can and does happen to other cities quite suddenly, and there is no way to predict and prevent it. 

When people are filled with hatred – often for who they are or what they have become – they always look for and find the other. In destroying the other, they destroy themselves.


The Cellist of Sarajevo is Toronto Public Library’s One Book community read for the Keep Toronto Reading festival of April 2014. More details are available here: http://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/ktr/

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