Monday, June 08, 2009

Review: The Cellist of Sarajevo

The Cellist of Sarajevo, Steven Galloway

Forget the politics of the three-year Siege of Sarajevo; rather, this is a story of the people trapped inside the city—and of four of them in particular.

This small, sparely written book revolves around a renowned but unnamed cellist who witnesses a mortar attack on a busy marketplace. Twenty-two innocent people, standing in line to buy bread, are suddenly bits and pieces of gory body parts. The cellist makes a vow to himself: for the next twenty-two days at the exact time of the attack, he will sit in front of the market and play a piece in memory of each of the slaughtered.

The cellist has no dialogue, so Galloway introduces three characters. Arrow is a young woman who is a master sniper defending the city; Kenan is in his thirties and has a family to support; and Dragan, in his sixties and a baker, lives with his sister because his wife and son were able to escape Sarajevo before the siege. Three very different people who all witness, like the cellist, the atrocities of war.

Galloway uses a device that is quite effective: like war itself, time is out of sync. The cellist’s story takes place over twenty-two days, Arrow’s a few days longer, but both Kenan’s and Dragan’s last little more than a day each. With short chapters jumping between the three in no particular order, the effect is disconcerting for the reader.

Click to enlargeGalloway tries his best to describe scenes of horror, but no written words can ever possibly come close to the experience of being there. We can feel compassion and sadness for these people, but only those who have been to war can truly relate and empathize.

Dr. Viktor Frankel, a Jewish psychiatrist imprisoned in Auschwitz, said in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, that even concentration camp prisoners had choices. They could choose to live or they could choose to lie down and die—many of whom chose the latter. This is where Galloway excels: the soul-searching that goes on within each of the characters. They remember how beautiful and peaceful Sarajevo once was, they wonder if it can ever be put back together again, they ask themselves if life is worth living or if they would be better off dead, they question if this nightmare will ever end or if they will go mad first, they contemplate suicide, they lose hope daily . . .

. . . And I think that is what the cellist’s role really is: not only to memorialize the slain, but to engender hope in the survivors.

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Click on the small photo to enlarge it. It is a devastating shot of the Sarajevo Martyrs Memorial Cemetary from Wikipedia.

Steven Galloway teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria.

Wandering Coyote wrote an excellent piece about war titled D-Day Thoughts. I encourage everyone to take the time to read it and leave her a comment.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

This sounds like a very powerful book. And of course it raises the question, what would we chose to do?

Thanks for the compelling review!

Kim Ayres said...

I'm sure I've seen this book on Maggie's shelf. Maybe I'll give it a go soon.

Jane said...

i just finished this... i'm waiting to read your review until after i write one of my own because i'm sure i'll probably just agree with whatever you said.

Mary Witzl said...

I love the idea of a cellist playing for all of the people who were killed, individually. You've made me want to read the book too, though I'll have to wait until we're back in Scotland.

Some years back I met a man who was with the UN peacekeeping force while all this was going on. He burst into tears describing how it felt to fly over a place where atrocities were occurring and be unable to do anything about it.

Charlie said...


Since I finished this book I cannot get it out of my mind. It's one of those books that has a "delayed haunting" trigger.