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Sarajevo cellist's celebration of humanity

The Cellist of SarajevoSteven Galloway, The Cellist of Sarajevo. Melbourne: Text Publishing 2008, ISBN 9781921351303, RRP 29.95

For 22 days Vedran Smailovic played the cello in the ruined Sarajevo market place. He honoured the 22 people killed there in mortar fire. The image is haunting. It was a symbol of hope, intimating that something might transcend the horror of the four year siege of the city. It inspired David Wilde's cello piece, ‘The Cellist of Sarajevo'. It also inspires this moving short novel by the young Canadian novelist, Steven Galloway.

The central but wordless figure of the novel is the unnamed cellist. The three protagonists of the novel meet neither him nor one another, but respond to his music. They are linked by their common need to walk through the besieged city.

Dragan's wife and daughter fled to Italy before the siege began. He goes through the streets to work at a bakery where he can also eat. Each fourth day Kenan makes his way through the streets to gather water for his wife and children as well as for an acerbic old neighbour, Mrs Ristovski. Arrow is a sniper. She has taken her new name in order to forget her old life. She now must kill enemy soldiers on the hills opposite. She is then charged with protecting the cellist from an enemy sniper. Because she has lost fear she is at home in the streets, having no reason to live.

In the streets the fragility of flesh is undisguised. Those who walk are constantly and arbitrarily exposed to the snipers in the hills above the city. Each journey involves a multitude of small decisions laden with consequence — which road and bridge to take, when to cross exposed roads, whether to greet or turn away from neighbours, whether to go to the help of those shot or to stand in safety. The constant presence of death, the fear and the need to walk the streets day after day, and the daily compromises made in the name of safety, put everyone's humanity at risk.

Galloway's narrative follows each of the characters as they walk through the city. It is not about the characters — their background and relationships are sketched lightly. Rather it is about character as this is established and tested in the small decisions and encounters of each day. The narrative moves slowly, allowing the reader to feel the agoraphobia of a city where you look to the hills, not for relief but for death. Because this so clearly is the stuff of everyday life in Sarajevo, the reader cannot but ask at each point, 'how would I have acted?'

The gesture of the cellist is both marginal and central to the story. As the characters are drawn into the music that he plays, they remember what they had forgotten — that life can be other. To Dragan, Kenan and Arrow he provides a moment of epiphany. After it they define their humanity in more expansive terms. The transformation is caught in the last words that Arrow speaks, 'My name is Alisa'.

Critical questions about such a powerful novel inevitably disclose more about the reviewer's ability to respond than about the book itself. Its registers of courage and compromise are for the most part conventionally masculine. Even Arrow has made herself hard and efficient in response to the siege. It would also be interesting to explore the modulations and the symbolic actions in which patient endurance expresses itself.

The affirmation of life made by each of the characters at the end of the novel is schematic and rhapsodic. It threatens to leave behind the grim, testing reality of the Sarajevo streets and the ever-pressing danger of the hills.

But even with these possible limitations, The Cellist of Sarajevo is a noble book. Its explores and celebrates humanity in lives whose daily diet is inhumanity and loss.

The Cellist of Sarajevo - Text Publishing

Andrena JamiesonAndrena Jamieson is a Melbourne writer.

Sarajeco cellist photo by Evstafiev Mikhail




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Existing comments

I once told the following story during a sermon. I thought you (and the reviewer) might be interested.

In the face of frustrated hopes, yet in the continuation of hope itself, let me tell you a story.

In Dresden, the German city that was devastated by the fire bombing at the end of the World War 2, there was a wonderful discovery. They found in the ruins a musical score that had survived the fire and devastation. It was the score to Albinoni's ‘Adagio for Strings and Orchestra in B Minor’.
In the midst of this devastation of war - the very worst that we do to each other - there survived something of the most beautiful that we create for each other.

So the Albinoni piece became a sign of hope. And it has been used that way.

During the siege of Sarajevo during the Balkans War, the city was shelled month after month, every single night. On one of those nights a group of people standing in line in front of a bakery were waiting to buy bread. A mortar shell fell right in the middle of them.
Twenty-two people were killed. Innocent people. Hungry people. Wanting to buy bread.

A few days later, at the same spot, in front of the burned out bakery, a man named Vedian Smailovic placed a chair, and began to play his cello. For 22 days he played his cello, one day in memory for each one of the people who had been killed at that spot.

Now the gesture itself was wonderful, playing music. But what gave it deeper significance is the music he played each day was ‘Adagio for Strings and Orchestra in B Minor’.

Rex Hunt | 14 March 2008  

Congratulations on a thoughtful and beautifully written review. I have just started the book.

Elizabeth Reid | 14 March 2008  

Thank you for such an inspiring review, which really made me keen to read the book. It is timely to read of a book that is really full of hope despite such devastation and sorrow. Thank you also to Rex hunt, for sharing your story of hope.

Maryrose Dennehy | 14 March 2008  

After having read Andrena Jamieson's review of The Cellist of Sarajevo,the thought crossed my mind that perhaps one of the many talented scriptwriters/producers would be inspired to make a movie based on the novel. I live in hopes!

Maureen T. Couch | 14 March 2008  

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