Format: Hardcover, 272 pages
Publisher: Knopf Canada
Pub Date: April 8, 2008
Before I tell you anything about Steven Galloway's book "The Cellist of Sarajevo" let me tell you a true story:
Vedran Smailovic was the principal cellist of the prestigious Sarajevo opera theater which was destroyed by sniper when Sarajevo was under seige in the 1990's.
At 4:00 pm on May 27th, 1992, a long line of starving people waiting in front of the only bakery in Sarajevo that still had enough flour to make bread were shelled. Twenty-two people died as Vedran Smailovic stood at his window a hundred yards away and watched.
The next day hungry people lined up again to beg for bread—certain they would die if they didn't come to the bakery and convinced they could die if they did. Then it happened. Vedran Smailovic arrived. He was dressed in the black suit and white tie in which he had played every night until the opera theater was destroyed. He was carrying his cello and a chair.
Smailovic sat down in the square and, surrounded by debris and the remainders of death and the despair of the living, he began to play the mournful Albinoni "Adagio," the one music manuscript that had been found whole in the city after the carpet bombing of Dresden.
What's more, shelling or no, he came back to the square every day after that for 21 consecutive days (one day for each of the people that had died) to do the same thing, a living reminder that there is a strength in the human spirit that simply cannot be destroyed. Today, where he sat, there is a monument of a man in a chair playing a cello. But the monument is not to his music, as good as it is. It is to his refusal to surrender the hope that beauty could be reborn in the midst of a living hell. Even more important, perhaps, is the fact that that small sound of hope rings on still around the world.
This act caught the imagination of people around the world. Composer David Wilde wrote a piece for cello called "The Cellist of Sarajevo" in his honor which was recorded by Yo Yo Ma. His daring act also inspired the song Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24 by Savatage. Folk singer John McCutcheon also penned a song in his honor, "In the Streets of Sarajevo." Now, Canadian author Steven Galloway's novel "The Cellist of Sarajevo" joins that inspired list.
Although, as per history, the people under siege in Sarajevo were the Bosnian Muslims and the men holding them there were the Bosnian Serbs, Galloway doesn't refer to them by their ethnic labels, preferring instead to call the inhabitants Sarajevans and their enemy "the men on the hills". By keeping his story free of ethnic labels he is able to convey to the reader the horror not just of the Sarajevo but of any war.
The prose he uses is spare but so evocative you will be moved in ways you never imagined. Much of the narrative moves in slow motion giving the reader time to feel the same fear and panic the protagonists feel as they try avoiding the snipers on the hill. You are right there with them trying to survive just like they are doing. The story of these three people (and the cellist) and what they endure just to survive will touch your heart and break it at the same time.
While the novel is centered on the conflict in Sarajevo it is also a book about art. “We have a tendency,” Galloway says, “in North America in particular to view art as a luxury item, things like music or books as almost a frivolity. But the way Europeans look at it, and kind of the way I look at it, is that one of the points of art and music is to remind us of our innate humanity.” And that is precisely why the cellist played in the rubble for 22 days...he was offering his music as a healing tool, a tool to connect with one's humanity despite the inhumane actions going on all around them.
As anyone that reads my blog knows, I read a lot of books but I have to say this has been one of the better books I have read in quite a while. Please, do yourself a favor and buy a copy, heck, buy a copy for a friend or family member too, you won't have any regrets.