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.