Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

Recently, Steven Galloway's wonderful, wonderful book was longlisted for the prestigious Giller Prize and it seemed a great time to revisit this extraordinary book. Another reason for revisiting this post is because the Cellist, Vedran Smailovich,whose courage was one of the main inspirations for the book, has been talking about suing Galloway for using his (Smailovic's) story. While I understand his being upset about the inclusion of his picture (without permission) on the book cover, I do not think (Smailovic) has a right to sue Galloway for writing about a very public event. Sure, it would have been nice if Galloway could have spoken to him before he used the cellist as a subject and maybe even gave him a monetary token of appreciation, but that was Galloway's prerogative and he chose not to do so. Any thoughts?

Category: Fiction
Hardcover, 272 pages

Publisher: Knopf Canada
Pub Date:
April 8, 2008
Price: $29.95

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.

(Joan Chittister)

(from the famous two-page photo spread and article that John Burns did for the New York Times)

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.

"The Cellist of Sarajevo" tells the story of three very ordinary people and how they go about their lives trying to survive the siege of Sarajevo. Arrow is the first protagonist we are introduced to, she is a young woman, a competitive shooter before the war and has been forced to become a sniper; Kenan is a middle-aged man and father who embarks every four days on a dangerous mission to collect water for his family and a hostile old neighbor and Dragan a 64-year old man who must make the dangerous journey everyday across sniper's alley to the bakery where he works in order to eat. The three are not known to each other but they are connected by the cellist of Sarajevo whom they go to listen to as he plays.

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.


Alpa said...

thanks for a great review, I will def be looking out for this.

Just got around to finshing 'In Spite of the Gods'. i'm sort of hesitant to say if I really liked it or if it just has me amused in a certain way... Either way, it was a good read - thanks for the recommendation on that one as well.

Wendy said...

Oh, I loved this one too (here's my review), and I couldn't agree is a must read. Thanks for such a great, well-written review, Lotus. This is a book which I think we'll be seeing all over the book blogs when it is released in May.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Alpa and welcome!

Some parts of "Inspite of the Gods" were quite revelatory and other parts we're mediocre, all in all it was a pretty good book and till today I find myself using it as a reference book for certain issues. I think it might have got overshadowed by the spate of books on India that came out around the same time.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Wendy!

I'm so pleased you read the book too and were just as moved. Thanks very much for the link to your review, I would definitely like to read your impressions. The book was released here on the 08th of April, I guess that's because Galloway is a Canadian author? Have you read any of his other books?

Sanjay said...

Hey there my friend! How are you? :-)
Ahh! you sure manage to find some absolute gems when it comes to books!

A wonderful review too, as always you captured the essence of the book very well.

I remember following this war during my early years in the US and will never forget the images I saw. It was frustrating how long it took for the West to act.

I agree that the music and arts are not just a way to connect with our innate humanity but they are also a way to express one's freedom. A different way and a different kind of an anti-war statement I suppose?

Do we know what happened to the cellist since?

Arrow is the first protagonist we are introduced to, she is a young woman, a competitive shooter before the war and has been forced to become a sniper

I am quite fascinated by "Arrow". Of all of these characters she seems to be the one (based on the little that I know) to be the least sympathetic. She wields a snipers rifle and inflicts death and violence as opposed to the others. How is she portrayed? What do you mean when you say forced? Is she conflicted over the choices she makes? Does she avoid shooting someone deliberately?

Thank you for telling me about the book, I can hardly wait to read it, and this goes on my "must read" list.

And for some reason, I think there is a movie in this story.

And since I am on the topic of music and it's redemptive powers. I must tell you about an interview with the journalist Steve Lopez on NPR's fresh air a couple of days back. It talks about the story of his friendship with an homeless man in LA. The man plays the violin really well and as the author finds
out he used to be a student at Julliard before he dropped out due to mental illness. There is an excerpt from the book at this link and audio of the interview as well. Amazing story, and its being made in to a movie too.

Sorry about the long comment.

A Reader from India said...

Lotus, A great review of what sounds like an inspiring and wonderful book. Will definitely check it out.

"one of the points of art and music is to remind us of our innate humanity.” How very true! I am looking forward to read this book.

Radha said...

Lovely review; and the book seems to have a very interesting plotline.

I loved this line by the author -- "one of the points of art and music is to remind us of our innate humanity"

Wendy said...

Lotus: I bet the book first released in Canada because he's Canadian - it won't release in the US until I believe mid-May. I have yet to read any of this other work...but I've made a note of this author and would definitely read more of his novels.

Sanjay: Arrow is indeed an interesting character ... but, actually she is quite sympathetic, which makes her character even more unique. To tell you more would ruin the must read it!

apu said...

I haven't heard of this one before; the accompanying story was moving. Will check if my library has acquired a copy....thanks for the introduction!

Praveen G K said...

Oh! A recent publication!! Have always been interested to know about what happened in Sarajevo; civil war and world war stories are a compelling read. Will pick it up sometime! As usual, a stellar review from an avid reader :-) Nice!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sanjay!

I feel certain you and *A* will enjoy this book, I hope you will read it.

Some of the characters in the book do mull over why the cellist would risk his life day in and day out to play this tune for 15 mins and what effect the music could possibly have on the people. It is very interesting to see how different people are touched in different ways by his playing.

I'm happy to tell you the cellist is still alive today and has sought refuge in Northern Ireland, I think he managed to leave Sarajevo in 1993.

With regard to Arrow, I deliberately didn't reveal too much about her, I agree with Wendy, you'll have to read the book to get to know her better! :)

Thank you for the NPR link...I love listening to NPR and the program you have singled out sounds particularly moving.

Thank you so much Sanj!

Lotus Reads said...

@A Reader ~ If you want to be moved in a profound way do read this book, it's a treasure! So happy for your comment, thank you!

@Wendy ~ Guess what! I just found out today I have a copy of his earlier book "Ascension" which is the story of a family of Romanian gypsies. I think I bought it at a book sale eons ago, I can't wait to read it!

@Apu ~ You're quite welcome! Are you in the US? I believe the release there is slated for the middle of May but you might want to put your name down on the library's waiting list. This is a very worthy read!

@Praveen ~ Thanks! Like you,I, too have always been interested in the Bosnia civil war. This book doesn't disappoint, you'll be glad you read it!

Wendy said...

Lucky you, Lotus! I will be watching for your review...and then you know I will end up running out and getting it myself :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks you for the review... I just ordered the book!

Lotus Reads said...

@Wendy~ I know, I am thrilled to have found it (it's been languishing on my bookshelf for quite a while now), will definitely let you know my thoughts!

@Planet Germany ~ I'm glad you ordered the book, you will like it. Congrats on having your own book published and for garnering a review by none other than the Daily Telegraph! Good on you!

Olivia said...

I like how sensitively handled the story is, calling the enemy "the men in the hills" maintains the musical focus of the story, which is not about politics or pointing fingers or taking sides, but the redemption in the beauty of music and the greatness of the human soul.

Sanjay said...

Thank you Lotus for your reply. I am sure we will enjoy this book.

I am glad the cellist has found a home.

Thank you for rightly not sharing too much about "Arrow", I can hardly wait to read this book. :)

Thanks Wendy! I am really very curious about this book now.

Nanditha Prabhu said...

i have to have a copy !:)

I read the konkans after reading your review. It was an interesting read ...but the culture that was portrayed in this book was mostly only after the portugese invasion. There is a lot about konkani culture which I found missing. But anyways I enjoyed the book.

You asked me abt japan. I had written on that in my travel blog. You can read on some of my japanese travel experiences if you click on the label japan.I still cherish those moments.

david mcmahon said...

Have heard a fair bit about this book, but thanks for giving it this glowing endorsement.

Say G'day to the family for me ....

heather (errantdreams) said...

I've heard Savatage's version of that true story, and it was beautiful. Thank you for relating the full tale.

Anali said...

I'm so behind in my book reading that I don't know when I'll get to something new, but this does sound good. And coming from you, it means a lot that you say it is one of the better books that you have read. I'll have to remember this one and get to it one day.

I hope that all is well with you. I love your new picture. Cool glasses! ; )

Dana said...

Onto the wishlist this goes. Sounds like a great read

apu said...

Oh I live in India...any idea when its going to be released here?

carra said...

If you say buy it, then I want to do so, but pity can't afford it at the moment. However I am going to save up for this, because I have this feeling I'll end up crying while reading this. I am envious how beautifully you write these reviews!

Canary said...

Thanks for the great review! You always cover all the aspects :)

Canary said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Heather said...

This book is on the TBR Mountain and I was contemplating it last night - should I begin now or wait for another day. I think I'll go home tonight and begin what sounds like a very special journey.

Lotus Reads said...

@Olivia ~ You said it so well!

@Sanjay ~ I would be willing to lend you my copy if you like.

@Nanditha ~ Thanks for giving me your impressions. Not enough has been written about the Konkans, I hope some other writer will pick up the gauntlet and write about the Konkans and their lives before the arrival of the Portuguese. I hadn't realized you had a travel blog as well...will definitely visit, thanks!

Lotus Reads said...

@David ~ How wonderful to see something from you. Will pass on your good wishes to the are you doing?

@Heather ~ You're so welcome. I am glad you've heard Savatage's version, it will make this book even more meaningful for you.

@Anali ~ Hey! Thanks for always noticing changes on my blog, you're one observant girl! :)

@Dana ~ How was your trip to Europe? I don't suppose you had the chance to visit any of the countries from what was formerly known as Yugoslavia?

@Apu ~ I have no idea. Want me to check with Random House?

@Carra ~ Thank you so much! This book is worth saving up for!

Lotus Reads said...

@Canary ~ Thank you! How have you been girl? So appreciate the visit.

@Heather ~ I'm curious to know...did you start the book last night? I'd love to know your impressions when you're done!

Dana said...

Didn't visit any Slavic countries; just Austria, Switzerland, Italy and Germany. Wonderful, adventurous trip

Sanjay said...

@Sanjay ~ I would be willing to lend you my copy if you like.

Thank you buddy for the generous offer. I will take you up on that. Please have a great Mother's day!!!!

Suzan Abrams said...

Hello Lotus,
Your book reviews have become so classy. You are indeed an astute and clever book reviewer. Thanks very much for coming by my blog once when you did. I meant to answer your comment but hardly even filled my own blog at the time - I think there was stuff occupying my mind. :-)

I remember you asked if I was in Facebook. No, I'm not Lotus. Hope you've been well. Your photo looks swell. Btw, I shall visit more often from now.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Suze!

Lovely to see you here after ages! How is Ireland treating you? I do appreciate the kind words...I don't read as often as before and I have long absences from the blogger world which I really hate, but I can't help it at this time for work keeps me really busy.

Yes, please, do visit again!

Angela in Europe said...

I've been a bad blogger and I haven't visited your website in a long time, but I must say, I love what you've done. It is quite an attractive change!

Lotus Reads said...

Thanks, Angela! I've been just as negligent. I don't blog nearly half as often as I used to and after taking on my new job I haven't found too much to visit blogs either. I feel terrible about that.

Molly said...


I am reading the Pandora Prescription by James Sheridan and I was curious if you have ever read it? Also, have you heard about this?


Candleman said...

Sold! I'm ordering one today. The story has long inspired me. Your review convinces me that the novel will lift me even higher.

It's almost been a year, can't believe it!

Amanda said...

This one also sounds fascinating!


Anonymous said...

Vedran Smailovic who was the inspiration for the book was never approached, Mr. Smailovic is upset over the exploit of his courage, by an author who is trying to make a quick buck.

Lotus Reads said...

@Candleman ~ Yes, true, how time flies! When are you both going to travel here again?

@Amanda ~ This is a really good read!

@Anon ~ Sorry it's taken me so long to get back to you...but you're right about Smailovic being upset, however,this business of the cellist wanting to sue Galloway for using his story has left a bad taste in my mouth.

Candleman said...

While returning to Ontario is high on our priority list, it could be a while. Currently, we're on a little jaunt to Oregon. Booklogged and I were just speaking of the two of you yesterday as we fondly remembered that wonderful visit over delicious Moroccan food!

Ted said...

Interesting post, as always. He's suing him? And then your anonymous commenter adds for exploitation and making a "quick buck." I agree with you that Smailovic has no right to do so, whether Galloway made money or not. But even more - how ugly. There is nothing "quick" about writing a book. It cheapens Smailovic's courage suddenly, like he sees an opportunity,in fact, to exploit it himself but feels he didn't move fast enough and now he's sore. He should have simply written his own book.

J at said...

What a fascinating story. I wonder if I might buy this for my step mother's birthday....hmmm. Thanks for a wonderful idea!

Sanjay said...

This is next on my list of books to read and it is entirely due to your wonderful review that I got this book.

Thank you for telling us about it making the Giller long list, and also about the lawsuit. I think Galloway should have talked to him before and found out what Vedran thought. That is my 2 cents. Take care buddy. :)

Lotus Reads said...

@Candleman ~ We haven't been back to that particular restaurant yet, but everytime I make couscous or tagine I think of the two of you and the fun evening we had. Enjoy Oregon!

@Ted ~ So true! While I admire what the Cellist did during the siege of Sarajevo, I cannot help but feel what he is doing now is so "ugly" as you aptly put it. He says he will burn his cello if he is not compensated...this extreme reaction just takes away from his earlier act of courage. His was a very public act and he cannot prevent people from speaking or writing about it, infact, if I were him, I would welcome it...the book has helped deliver his story to people all around the world, making a hero of him.

Lotus Reads said...

@J ~ Great choice! Is your step mother an avid reader or did you want to give her this book because there is a Bosnian connection for her somewhere. I have to admit this has been one of the best reads I've come across this year. A beautiful human story.

Lotus Reads said...

@ Sanjay ~ I'm thrilled to bits you bought the book, you won't regret it. It's a beautifully-told story. I agree, it would have been nice if either Galloway or Random House had approached Verdan, but clearly they didn't consider this courtesy a necessity. Wonder why Verdan is this furious was a very public event and anyone could have written about it, no?

Lotus Reads said...

@ Sanjay ~ I'm thrilled to bits you bought the book, you won't regret it. It's a beautifully-told story. I agree, it would have been nice if either Galloway or Random House had approached Verdan, but apparently Galloway was reluctant to speak to the cellist as he was writing the book because, as you will soon find out,certain characters in the book question the cellist's motives and Galloway thought that if he spoke to the cellist he (Galloway) might find it difficult to put himself in the characters' shoes. Wonder why Verdan is this furious was a very public event and anyone could have written about it, no?

Booklogged said...

Happy Autumn, Lotus. This is a lovely review and has convinced me to read this book. I bought it months ago for Candleman, but he hasn't found time in his busy schedule to read it yet. I just may sneak it off his bookshelf and read it first.

I tagged you for a picture meme. It's fun, quick and easy, but don't feel like you have to do it. You can see the short rules HERE.

Id it is said...

A great review ! You have me hooked; I'm getting myself a copy of this one!

Lotus Reads said...

And a happy Autumn to you, too, booklogged although I will admit it feels more like winter here at the moment, brrr!

I am definitely going to take a look at the picture meme...I will do it tomorrow since I don't have to go to work...thanks so much for thinking of me.

You will enjoy "The Cellist". The only gripe you might have with it is it's being too short! I wanted it to go on! :)

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Id

Want me to send you mine?

Sanjay said...

Lotus, thank you for the explanation that certainly helped. I can see Galloway's reluctance. And I am sorry if this sounds like a cliche but Verdan shut himself off from the rest of the world somewhat after he left Sarajevo. I am not sure how this plays in to the whole story. I wonder how it will play out.

Id it is said...

Thanks for offer! Unfortunately, my amazon order is already on way! But thanks, that's nice of you to offer!

Thinker said...

What a story....will have to read it.

The cellist is right in his anger and the novelist is right in having told the story. Stories are the stuff of others' tragedies and what the musician did was his own private karma.

Thanks for the review.

Praveen G K said...

Hi LR,

Thanks to your review, I picked up this book to read. It was a fascinating read, and as you rightly mentioned, the narration is so evocative. I really enjoyed the book. I just queue up the books, based on your blog reviews. Thanks a lot :-)

J at said...

Hi Lotus,

My step mom is an avid reader, and loves a good human interest story, and you saying you loved this book motivated me. I bought it for her. I'll let you know if she tells me her opinion.

We often give each others books. :)

Vicki Kellaway said...

I love this one too and enjoyed this review (you can read mine at The 'disagreement' between the author and the cellist only adds to it, although I do side with the author. Being someone's muse doesn't entitle you to anything financially.

rosalin said...

I guess I am in the minority here. I found this book extremely disappointing, indeed, forgetful. Where was the cellist in the title? The subject matter in itself is compelling but sadly was dealt with in a very superficial way with nothing revelatory. While the books made me appreciate th water I receive on a daily basis, Slaughterhouse Five, it is not.