Title: The Cellist of Sarajevo
Author: Steven Galloway
Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
First line: It screamed downward, splitting air and sky without effort.
The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway is the story of the siege of Sarajevo, the longest siege in modern military history. From April 5, 1992 to February 29, 1996, the city of Sarajevo was surrounded by the Yugoslav People’s Army and Bosnian Serb forces. The city underwent daily mortar shelling and sniper attacks. 12,000 people were kiilled and 50,000 people were injured, most of those people civilians.
Galloway has taken the story of the siege of Sarajevo, and distilled it down to the stories of four people. This isn’t a political novel – the politics of the siege aren’t discussed. This is a novel about war and how people deal with a state of constant danger and deprivation.
The cellist witnesses the mortar attack of an open market near his apartment. Twenty-two people are killed. The next day, he dresses in his tuxedo, takes his cello, and plays Albonino’s Adagio in G Minor at the site of the attack at 4:00 pm. He does the same every day for twenty-two days, in honor of the victims of the mortar attack.
Arrow is a young woman whose life has been irrevocably changed by the siege. A crack marksman on the rifle team at the university, she has become a sniper, picking off the gunmen on the hills who terrorize people trying to go about their daily lives as best they can. She is ordered to protect the cellist and the symbol of hope he has become.
Kenan is a husband and father, and every four days he takes a rope loaded down with eight water bottles and treks across the city to the brewery’s underground spring, the only sure source of clean water. He fills his bottles and treks back home, at each intersection and bridge wondering if a sniper will end his life.
Dragan is a bakery worker who sent his wife and grown son out of Sarajevo before it was too late. He lives with his sister and her husband, avoiding conscription into the army by virtue of his job baking bread for the people of Sarajevo.
These four people embody the lives of every victim of the siege of Sarajevo, and illustrate the lengths humans will go to in order to survive. In times of war, people are faced with huge choices every day, choices for which the consequences mean life and death for themselves, their loved ones, and even the strangers around them. For some people, the choices they make help them to retain their humanity and their hope. For others, the choice for self-preservation holds such a sway that they become less human in their desire to save their own lives.
Galloway’s writing is perfectly suited to this kind of story – stark, yet descriptive. His characters are individually formed and the thought processes they experience as they go through the motions of living demonstrate both their individuality and their unity with the rest of humankind. This book left me with bittersweet tears for the horrors that people inflict on each other, but also for the light that exists in each of us, should we choose to embrace it.
5 out of 5 stars