The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis
Author: Steven Galloway
Format: Hardcover, 272 pages
Publisher: Knopf Canada
Pub Date: April 8, 2008
The Cellist of Sarajevo is a stark, microcosmic account of the effects of war on four main characters:
The Cellist who is compelled to play the cello for 22 days to commemorate the death of 22 people who died by a shelling while waiting in line at a bakery for a loaf of bread.
A female sniper by the name of “Arrow,” who has accurate precision and a high volume of successful kills. Arrow normally acts independently choosing her targets at will, but is later assigned to defend the cellist from any potential attacks. Though extremely talented, the course of her actions lead her to a duplicate identity and a hard, cold, ambivalence.
Kenan is a family man, a husband and a father to two children. He is over-burdened by the fear he holds in the responsibility of providing basic needs for his family and must live out a somewhat duplicate identity, concealing his fear every time he must leave his home. He travels a day’s worth to fetch water in the few bottles he must reuse and carry on his own. He fears the death he potentially faces with each step he makes on his journey and what may happen to his family if he does not return.
Dragan is a husband and a father to a son who were fortunate enough to flee to Italy during the war. Dragan is left behind in Sarajevo, unknown to be dead or alive. He works at a local bakery that allows him the privilege to daily bread and food in the kitchen should he be able to make it to work. The war hardens Dragan’s sensibility and drives him to hopeless pessimism, which causes him anxiety and prevents him from contact with people of his past to strangers that he may meet on the street.
The novel began slowly in its plain narrative, but I believe the minimalism of the language was perhaps intentional to emphasize the stark nature of war. The tone, sombre and grey, and its pathetic fallacy speaks to the affect of war on innocent civilians.
The fact that the story focused on four separate characters brought home the reality of how war can affect people differently and yet just as tragically. But I was relieved at the redemption found for each character in their slow, yet purposeful evolution.
Dragan was able to reconcile his anxiety in meeting his past by running into Emina, a woman who he and his wife had known before the war. They come in contact before considering crossing the street, which in wartime is as dangerous as entering a minefield. They exchange a few words and Dragan discovers that Emina is risking her life to deliver expired medication to a stranger and to also listen to the local yet, famous cellist play the cello. Dragan resists her reasoning in doing this, but regrets being harsh with her. He only realizes his error in closing himself off to people and the world when Emina crosses the street and gets shot. Dragan is stunned into immobility. Unlike others who choose to risk their lives by helping her come across the street to relative safety and to whisk her off to a hospital for medical attention, Dragan is frozen in his fear, helplessness, and disbelief. He does, however, come to terms with this and compensates by eventually helping an already dead man move out of harm’s way and out from the eyes of the media. Dragan decides then that he will be one of the few left to help rebuild the Sarajevo that he remembers and assertively walks across the street in answer to the “men in the hills” by displaying his decision to no longer live under a regime of oppression and fear despite the war that continues to diminish the lives of the Sarajevan people. This decision is cemented by his courteous and jovial greeting, “Good afternoon” to a stranger passing him by in the street, when obviously the afternoon is neither good, but the greeting empathetic and necessary.
Kenan who cries out in exasperation by the exhaustion and toll it has taken on him to travel, search out, and obtain water for his family—not a simple task by any means when the brewery in which he gets his water is attacked by bombing and he is forced to witness violence, mayhem, and death—decides for himself that he will not falter to pessimism and hopelessness as embodied in Mrs. Ristovski’s character, by returning on another trip to reclaim the bottles of water for his neighbour that he had angrily left behind. I, myself, would have chosen to leave the bottles where they were left considering how terrible and abrasive Mrs. Ristovski’s character is to Dragan personally, but for drama’s sake and good storytelling, this act shows not only Kenan’s growth as a character, but also the magnitude in which his sacrifice is made. Yes, he could get killed on the way to the bridge by exposing himself to indiscriminate snipers from the opposing side. Yes, he witnesses the treachery of blood, death, and helplessness in an afternoon bombing. Yes, he’s exhausted beyond measure. And yes, Mrs. Ristovski’s nature does not deserve kindness, let alone sacrifice. But Kenan returns to find the bottles of water he left behind because he would rather choose to live with integrity rather than fear.
Arrow, who decides to allow Sarajevan guerrillas to locate and assassinate her even though she has the ability to prevent this from happening, shows her willingness to “kill” the character she had become. This death is a timely and justified one, perhaps not only as atonement for her own killing crimes, but also as an opportunity for her to reclaim herself as the person she used to be before the war, before she had become a sniper, and before she changed her named. She utters in willingness her true name, “I am Alisa,” as a testimony and epitaph of who she chooses to be at the end of her life.
The cellist, not only as a man who brought locals together in unification to mourn 22 dead civilians for 22 days, also solidified for himself an answer in the madness of war. He played his cello at the risk of his own life as a commemoration of the deaths that took place, but also played his cello as a heroic and therapeutic answer to his own sorrow and grief about the war on Sarajevo in general. He does not speak in the novel, a mute character who, but only plays a sad rendition of a score that was historically “pieced” together from rubble – from nothing. This act is not only beautiful and bittersweet, but a central focus to the hope and resistance shown by a people who must resign to the facets of a war ridden, occupied Sarajevo. The task is complete and this sense of completion gives the cellist and its listeners, its interactive audience, a voice without speaking and a resolution to some form of peace and reconciliation to what has happened and what civilians hope for the future.
Though the book is dark, sombre, tragic, and stark – it does not leave you in the hole that was birthed by the shelling of war. It does in its own slow, methodical, evolution give rise to a people in how they are able to overcome personal struggle against the terror of nameless death and the dying of infrastructure, their culture, and their home.