“Why do you suppose he’s there? Is he playing for the people who died? Or is he playing for the people who haven’t? What does he hope to accomplish?” -From The Cellist of Sarajevo-
The Siege of Sarajevo began April 5, 1992 and lasted almost four years. Approximately 10,000 people were killed, and 56,000 wounded – most were civilians. Embedded in these numbers are thousands of personal stories. One of those stories includes Vedran Smailovic, a musician who witnessed 22 of his friends and neighbors killed by a mortar shell while they were waiting to buy bread in May 1992. In response to this horrific event, Smailovic sat in the square where his friends had died and played his cello for 22 days – one day for each life. This small, but significant human response to the war touched Steven Galloway – a Canadian writer who had never been to Sarajevo, but who began to think about hate and the essential ingredients of humanity. The result is The Cellist of Sarajevo – a profoundly moving and universal novel about what it means to be human in the face of atrocity.
The Cellist of Sarajevo is the story of four regular people and their response to war and hate. The cellist is the character who unites the story threads. His music is the backdrop to the core stories which Galloway tells in taut, yet simple prose. Dragan is living with his sister and her family – he has managed to send his wife and son away from Sarajevo to safety and he often thinks about what it would be like to leave Sarajevo and join them. In the meantime, he avoids old friends and focuses on his survival – trying to cross an intersection where a sniper waits. Kenan lives with his wife and two small children. He has avoided engaging in the conflict and every four days must go to get water for his family and elderly neighbor – a woman who is unkind, cold, and selfish. Arrow is a young woman who will not acknowledge her real name – the name that represents who she was before the war. She now works as a sniper for the forces within the city. Before the end of the novel, all three will have to decide whether or not they will allow the war to make decisions for them and steal their humanity, or if instead they will reach out to another person and do what is right, even if it means they will not survive.
I was moved to tears at the end of this short novel. Galloway writes exquisitely. He shows the reader the simple lives of his characters and defines the essence of what it means to be human. The novel makes the reader wonder what he or she would do faced with similar circumstances. It asks the big questions. As Galloway points out in his short introduction:
The themes and characters exist wherever ordinary people find themselves caught in war. Sarajevo could be Lebanon or Chechnya or Iraq or a half-dozen other places.
The Cellist of Sarajevo is required reading. Beautifully crafted and heavy with truth, it is one I can highly recommend. Rated 5/5.