The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


The Cellist of Sarajevo
If this city is to die, it won't be because of the men on the hills, it will be because of the people in the valley. When they're content to live with death, to become what the men on the hills want them to be, then Sarajevo will die.

The Cellist of Sarajevo has been a book I wanted to read for quite a while. Every time I read a review of this book, I feel compelled to read the book itself but then pretty soon I forget all about it. When I saw this book at my B&N store early this year, I picked it up almost on a whimsy, and a few weeks later, I dived into it.

This is a very short book, but it is by no means a fast read. I found myself wanting to stop often, to ponder the passages and their meanings. There is so much depth in this book, which is interesting because plot-wise, there isn't much. I wouldn't even say that this is a character-driven story, which it is. To me, it felt more like an action-driven story - how something you do ends up having a lot of consequences and can change the path of your future, how you give the impression of being a certain kind of person but deep inside you are nothing like that vision, how you never wanted to be involved in something but life and war brings you to the exact spot you swore off. The Cellist of Sarajevo is a very interesting study of humans and war, specifically humans in war, with the Bosnian War as the backdrop.

At the center of the story is the titular cellist, who is a minor character of this book. He has just resolved to play the cello at the site of a bombing for 22 days to mourn the 22 people who died there. (This cellist is inspired by Vedran Samilović, the real-life cellist who used to play in ruined buildings.) The arcs of three other characters, Arrow, Dragan, and Kenan evolve around the cellist's resolution. Arrow is a sniper who never wanted to kill people, and yet here she is, targeting the rebels and gunning them down. She is so good at what she does that she has thus far escaped capture. However, her newest assignment - protect the cellist at all costs - is likely to be far more dangerous than aiming her gun at remote rebels.

Dragan is one of the lucky few who still had a job. Every day, he makes his way from his house to the bakery where he works but there is one intersection that he needs to cross which is occasionally the focus of some sniper's fire. This particular day, the sniper has his scope focused on the intersection making Dragan unable to cross for a long time. It is here that he learns some valuable lessons about the indomitable human spirit even in the eyes of real danger.

Kenan makes a trip every few days to a water reservoir to fill his six bottles with enough water to keep his wife and kids sated for a few days. He also takes two extra bottles for his elderly neighbor whom he doesn't like and who doesn't give him any gratitude or appreciation. So far, he has been lucky although there is plenty of danger that he needs to face during this journey. But this time, he isn't so lucky.

There is so much to love in this book. Galloway's portrayal of what war does to people is interesting. Two of the characters identify themselves more as cowards than heroes. I would hesitate to call them cowards because they are really just scared. Kenan, the father, appears stoic, in control of himself, and confident in front of his family but the moment he steps outside for one of his frequent trips to get water, he crumbles to the floor because he doesn't want to die nor does he want to go out and walk in front of the enemy. Dragan doesn't try to help a friend who gets shot when she tries to cross the intersection but he does get embarrassed when a total stranger helps this woman over to the other side. Arrow, on the other hand, is more of a self-righteous person. She doesn't want to kill a weaponless person just because they seem to be in enemy territory. She would rather die than lose her principles.

I loved The Cellist of Sarajevo more than I thought I would when I first started it. The best comparison I can get for this book is any of José Saramago's books, which are incredibly difficult to plow through but by the end you are rewarded with an excellent story, wonderful characters, and plenty of wisdom to ponder. This isn't a book you want to rush through. It would make for an excellent night-time reading - the chapters aren't long, the characters are very identifiable, and despite how sad the circumstances are, you can't help but feel uplifted by the positive aspects of the book.


This book is from my personal library.

9 comments:

bermudaonion(Kathy) said...

This sounds like a very moving book. I need to look for it.

Athira / Aths said...

I hope you will like it!

Eleanor Baggley said...

I read this book a really long time ago, but I can still remember it quite vividly and that does not happen often. I've not read any Saramago before and I think I may have to now if you consider them a good comparison. Great review :)

Athira / Aths said...

That's what I loved about this book. When I read it and even after I finished it, I thought I was going to forget about it soon. I struggled this long to write a decent review because I wasn't sure what to write. When I finally sat down to write the review, it came so easily!

Care said...

I assume this would be heartbreaking! Great review.

Athira / Aths said...

Thanks! :-)

Lisa Sheppard said...

I read this one a few years ago; for some reason, I couldn't really remember it until you started talking about the characters. Then I had to go back to my review to see what I'd thought about it. Which was apparently a lot of thinking because it really had me looking into the facts and the siege. What a terrible time and waste of lives.

Athira / Aths said...

That's what I loved about this book. When I read it, I wasn't sure I will love it but it made me think so much about people and war and their actions.

literaryfeline said...

I'm so glad you liked this one, Athira. I loved it when I read it. The stories of each of the characters really resonated with me.