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The Cellist of Sarajevo

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It has been a while since I've written about a book I've loved, but I recently finished this short novel by Canadian author Steven Galloway and was extremely impressed.

The story is riveting. Carefully and cleverly told, this novel conveys a powerful sense of what daily life in a war zone would be like, and the emotional challenges that one would be forced to deal with. It's also a story about the enormous importance of art -- in this case, music -- in every day life. As the author said, in an interview, it's about the necessity of "art and music ... to remind us of our innate humanity.”

And although this particular story is set in the early 1990s in the city of Sarajevo, in the former Yugoslavia, in some ways I think a similar story could be told almost anywhere during any war.

For I imagine that the enormous difficulties that people under siege would face trying to cope with daily life -- from finding clean water and food while navigatating treacherous streets, to living without heat and electricity -- would be somewhat similar, no matter the war.

And the very big question -- how do you retain some of your humanity under such enormous threats -- would also be universal.

The novel is fiction based on a few facts. During the siege of Sarajevo there really WAS a cellist, who in 1992 saw from his apartment window a mortar attack that killed 22 people as they waited in line outside to buy bread. In commemoration, he decided that each day for 22 days, he would sit outside on the very spot where the deaths occurred, and perform the mournful, stately Adagio in G Minor.

The cellist put himself at enormous risk. During the siege of Sarajevo, over approximately two years, troops fired on civilians trapped in the city. Hundreds of men, women and children were killed while they were shopping, tending gardens, fetching water from the river or otherwise trying to go about their daily lives.


The rest is of the novel is fiction, involving three different residents of the city who are trying to survive, and are all brought together in some way by the cellist. One character is a young woman who becomes a sniper, first to defend her city and later to defend the cellist whose performances are bringing people together and helping them reconnect with their humanity. Which is exactly what the attackers, described only as "the men in the hills" are trying to destroy.

The novel doesn't ever assign nationalities or religions or political tags to any of the people in the novel. The main characters are simply referred to as Sarajevans, facing their common enemy in the hills who are trying to destroy the multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan centre.

A very good friend of mine escaped Sarajevo in the earlier days of the siege, when she was a university student. She recently read the novel and was amazed at how well it captured the sense of the city, the people, the life she used to know.

Comments (13)

Vicky:

That sounds like a really good book. I haven't heard of it, but now I'll look for it.

I can't even imagine living through a war. I am glad your friend got out in time. Sounds like a powerful story.

Thanks for the review; I'll put this one on my list. Definitely sounds like it's worth reading.

This will most certainly be one of my winter reading books - it is already on my list to purchase. ...The universal language of music and its power! My time with Mar is my most propitious reading period! So glad to have a book we will both enjoy and discuss.

sandrac:

Hi everyone, this really is an engrossing story. It's told in a way that you're aware of the war and the danger all the time, but it isn't gory or graphic (I suppose our imaginations can do that for us!)

Mary, I know that you would enjoy this book, and its sub-text: art is not a luxury to be brought out on special occasions only. It is essential to a good life.

Anne:

Thanks for the review, Sandra. I've noticed this book in my local used bookstore and wondered about it. I think I'll pick it up next time I drop in. Sounds like the story contains much wisdom and meaning.

dana:

Adding this book to my list also Sandra... it sounds interesting. Thanks for the recommendation. Dana

Kathy (Trekcapri):

Hi Sandra, thank you for writing such a wonderful and descriptive review. It sounds like a very interesting book with an important message to tell.

Thanks for writing it. I will definitely put this on my reading list for sure.

sandrac:

Hi Anne, Dana -- I think the novel really does have some important things to say.

Kathy, I hope the trip planning is going well -- you must be getting so excited!

Sandra,
Sounds like a powerful, interesting story.

I agree with you, that war circumstances and difficulties are the same, no matter which war. I lived in Palestine during part of the war there, and I remember having no electricity for days, maybe even weeks, I also remember our family sitting in the basement around candle lights, playing cards and conversing trying to distract our minds from the the fact that we could be blown up any second by any of the missles we are hearing hovering overhead. The power and strong will of people living in war still amazes me, as I sit here and type this,my heart shutters thinking there are millions if not billions of souls all over the world living under these conditions. But I know, my extended family in Palestine deals with curfews and war terrors bravely every day, they are close, they party,sing and dance and every night before they go to bed, they pray for a better morning.

Thanks for recommending this book.And I am glad your friend was able to move away from the war.

sandrac:

Hello Candi, thanks so much for sharing a bit of your experience living with war, directly and now, indirectly. It really is shattering to think how many millions must live with a reality that I can only dimly imagine.

But even if I can only imagine such conditions, I still believe people like me (who are fortunate enough to live in peace) have a real duty/responsibility to follow the news and read books like this, if only to bear witness to what others are suffering.

cubbies:

I read this, too! And I agree that it was profound and thought provoking. One thought is we each have our Sarajevos to endure and could well use the cellist as a model for how we choose to handle them.

sandrac:

Hi cubbies,

Interesting thought! There are many different kinds of wars and many ways to resist.

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