From 1992-96, Sarajevo was under siege–the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. Another example of the shameful brutality we perpetrate and perpetuate unto this very day. The Cellist of Sarajevo, like the memoir-cum (fine)-movie The Pianist , is a story of beauty defying devastation. Steven Galloway (Another Canadian, by the way. Is it the water up there? The health care system? Seems I’m stumbling over them all the time these days. This one was raised in Kamloops, which if you’ve ever been there, you’ll know is so unlikely a place to breed a good author that you won’t credit the report.)
In this brief novel, based, as they say, on an actual event, Galloway ties the lives of several characters to the improbable response of one of Sarajevo’s finest musician’s (principal cellist in the symphony) to a mortar shelling in his neighborhood, an attack which killed twenty-two of his neighbors and injured about seventy others. Already robbed of his livelihood and performance space by the unrelenting attacks from the surrounding hills, he placed a chair on the sidewalk outside his apartment building at the hour of the bombing (4 pm) each day for twenty-two days and performed a little known adagio in honor of the dead and in some sort of indefinable protest against the violence.
The Galloway-created people whose lives the musician touches include a sniper who essays to protect him from harm during his performance and several other people who happen on his impromptu concerts while they are going about the very dangerous business of living their lives. It is an act of peril and courage to go out to buy bread or find water when mortars and rifles can be trained on any bridge or intersection at any minute. Or not. It’s all random, it seems–timing, evasive action, time of day or night. You can’t improve your chances.
Galloway’s language is simple, clear, and effective:
Through the scope of her rifle [Arrow] can see three soldiers standing beside a low wall on a hill above Sarajevo. . . . she can kill an one of them, and maybe even two of them, whenever she chooses. And soon she’ll make her choice.
With such passages he builds suspense and character, weaves in backstory, returns to the moment at hand. Exquisite and limpid. Always the right gesture, the right word, to evoke the situation. Like the cellist’s performance, this is a sad, ugly, and beautiful story. I found the ending too sentimental, quite out of keeping with the honest straightforwardness of the rest. But the rest is so well done that it doesn’t spoil.