BookBrowse Reviews The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

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The Cellist of Sarajevo

by Steven Galloway

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway X
The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
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  • First Published:
    May 2008, 256 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2009, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Novel. A spare and haunting, wise and beautiful novel about the endurance of the human spirit and the subtle ways individuals reclaim their humanity in a city ravaged by war

Just 52 days after the Siege of Sarajevo began, 35-year-old cellist Vedran Smailovic watched as a mortar shell killed 22 of his friends and neighbors waiting across the street in a bread line. For the next 22 days, Smailovic took his cello to the site of their deaths and played the hauntingly beautiful Adagio in G Minor, the only response he felt he could make in the face of so horrific an event. It is this reaction to the inhumanity of a brutal war that forms the core around which The Cellist of Sarajevo revolves.

It is difficult to imagine what it would be like to exist in a place where the choice of which street to cross and when to do so is a life and death decision. Galloway's writing transports readers into exactly those circumstances, putting them right there in the midst of war-torn Sarajevo with all its hardships and uncertainty.

Little of the narrative involves the fictionalized character of the cellist himself. Instead we focus on the lives of three ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. All three are aware of the cellist's act of remembrance, but only one of them even has the opportunity to hear his performance. There are no deep philosophical discussions regarding war between them. They concentrate on the things that would concern normal people in grim circumstances – food and water, family, life and death, recollections of good times long gone, hope for something better, the struggle to do the right thing. The characters are well-written, created with such depth and sympathy that they practically feel like family by the end of the novel.

Galloway puts his readers in his characters' shoes, allowing us to view the war through their eyes, hear it through their ears. He portrays his protagonists with sympathy and humanity without ever drifting into sentimentality or cliché. His prose is spare but conveys an extraordinary amount of detail in just a few words. One of the characters leaves his home to make the long, dangerous trip across town to get water for his family:

"As the door to his apartment closes behind him he presses his back to it and slides to the ground. His legs are heavy, his hands cold. He doesn't want to go. What he wants is to go back inside, crawl into bed, and sleep until this war is over. He wants to take his younger daughter to a carnival. He wants to sit up, anxious, waiting for his older daughter to return from a movie with a boy he doesn't really like. He wants his son, the middle child, only ten years old, to think about anything other than how long it will be before he can join the army and fight."

Reading the novel is a very intense, almost tiring experience, as every paragraph contains a devastating memory, observation or choice. The images the author paints are vivid and unforgettable. Not a single word feels out of place. The reader has the feeling that nothing can be added or removed from the novel, that changing it in any way would lessen it.

Interestingly, Galloway never mentions the ethnic divisions that were such a big part of the historic conflict. If it wasn't for the fact that the narrative mentions various Sarajevo streets and neighborhoods, the novel could be set in just about any location where a city and its civilians are caught up in war. The decisions Galloway's characters must make are universal.

Every now and then a book comes along that makes such an impression that the reader wants to rush out and buy copies for all their friends. The Cellist of Sarajevo is such a novel. It is a work of rare depth and beauty, and is highly recommended.

The Balkans

The 20th century was an intensely bloody time for the Balkan region (20th century timeline & maps) as it emerged from centuries of control by the Ottoman Empire, and briefer control by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, that triggered World War I, took place on the Latin Bridge (also known as the Princip Bridge) in Sarajevo (now the capital of the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina) leading to massive bloodshed across Europe including the Balkans.

The bloodshed in the Balkans during World War II was even worse. The diverse ethnic and political groups living in the area fought among themselves as well as against the Nazis. Yugoslav war casualties topped one million people, and over half a million (mainly ethnic Serbs, plus Jews and gypsies) were killed in the Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia. By the end of the war, the Communist partisans, led by Josip Broz Tito, were victorious, leading to the consolidation of six Balkan republics into one single-party socialist state known as Yugoslavia .... continued in sidebar.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in June 2008, and has been updated for the April 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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