Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Cellist of Sarajevo

For the past few months I have been contemplating reading Steven Galloway's The Cellist of Sarajevo. I've seen it at the local bookstore many times, read its cover, leafed through its pages, and always placed it back on the shelf. A book about the killing of civilians in Sarajevo, Bosnia? It just sounded too depressing.

I finally decided the time had come to give Galloway's work a shot when I noticed his book sitting on the shelf during my latest trip to the library. When I saw The Cellist of Sarajevo advertised as local literature - Galloway is from a suburb in BC's Lower Mainland - I felt I had no choice but to sit down with a coffee and digest his work word for word.

Galloway portrays a country's experience of civil war and its tendency to dehumanize society. He describes intense scenes of disparity and hope: a country's army murders its civilians who merely wish to cross a street; a cellist plays Albinoni Adiago in G minor on war torn streets for 22 consecutive days as an act of deviance; counter-snipers attempt to protect the people of Sarajevo; and parents struggle to stay optimistic in the presence of their children.

Galloway's work is graphic. A poignant part of the novel is his suggestion that the news media's presentation of war stories distances the audience from events. It was a powerful scene and I feel the only way to give it justice is to provide an excerpt.

After witnessing the bombing of one of Sarajevo's streets, Dragan, one of the main characters, disagrees with a journalist videotaping the resulting carnage:

"It's not that he doesn't want the world to know what's happening here. He does, or at least he agrees with the argument that the world is more likely to intervene if it is forced to see the suffering of innocents. It's just that the scene the cameraman will capture is in no way representative of what's happened here today. It's the aftermath.
A dead body won't both anyone. It will be a curiosity, but unless some viewer knew the hatless man it will mean nothing. There's nothing in a dead body that suggests what it was like to be alive. No one will know if the man had unusually large feet, what his friends used to tease him about when he was a child. No on will know about the scar on his back he got from falling out of a tree, or that his favourite food was chocolate cake...
None of this will ever be said again, has simply vanished from existence. But these are the things that make a death something to be mourned. It's not just a disappearance of flesh. This, in and of itself, is easily shrugged off. When the body of the hatless man is shown on the evening news to people all over the world, they will do exactly that. They may remark on the horror, but they will, most likely, think nothing of it at all." (Galloway, The Cellist of Sarajevo, p 232-233).

It's sad, but this happens all too frequently. Most of us in the western world are accustomed to having dinner with the news playing in the background providing footage of death and war. It is almost as if the dehumanization that occurs in countries at war continues into the living rooms of those in the west.

Galloway also proposes that music is a powerful form of communication and allows people to express joy or recall happier times. When homes in Sarajevo do have power, people turn on radios and CD players in the hopes of listening to music and dancing. And the cellist, the grounding focal point of the novel, is able to stop civilians, soldiers, and counter-snipers from action by merely playing his music. Galloway seems to suggest that music is a way to regain humanity, emotional connections, and sensitivity to others in a world ravaged by war.

It wasn't until I was finished reading The Cellist of Sarajevo that I looked up Albinoni Adiago in G minor (you can listen to it here). This is the song that was performed by the fictional cellist... and the song that was played by Vedran Smailovic, the actual cellist who played in Sarajevo's streets in 1992. The novel is premised on Smailovic, who defied imminent danger in order to honour those who were murdered during the Siege of Sarajevo. Needless to say it is a beautiful and moving piece of music.


  1. Hi. Stopping in from the hop. I'm so glad you reviewed this book. It's one I've been considering for a challenge I'm taking part in and you've convinced me that it's worth reading. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
    Nice to meet you,

  2. Hi Ms. C,
    I read this book not long ago and I loved it. It's heartbreaking yet poignant. I love Galloway's style. I liked it because it's about war without being about war. It's not a historical recount or a memoir and that's what makes it special.
    Two thumbs up!


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