In May 1992, a little after the beginning of the Sarajevo war, 22 people were killed by mortar fire while waiting to buy bread at a bakery. To honor and mourn the people who had lost their lives Vedran Smailovich, a cellist decided to play at the square where they died for 22 straight days. His actions formed the basis for Steven Galloway’s novel The Cellist of Sarajevo.
The book traces the lives of three people caught in the middle of the war. There is Kenan, a father of three who must make his way across the dangerous streets of the city to fetch water for his family and a cantankerous old neighbor. Then there is Dragan, a baker whose wife and son were able to leave the city for the safe shores of Italy and finally there is Arrow, a young woman recruited by the city’s defenders to shoot the snipers. Her latest mission is to save the cellist from being killed as he plays his tribute.
In the hands of a less skilled novelist, a story like this has the potential to become melodramatic and overwrought. Fortunately, Galloway is skilled enough to let the story tell itself. And it is a moving one. It brings home the horrors and alienation caused by war and the toll it takes on every individual. One of the most touching moments of the book comes when Dragan sadly realizes that the beautiful Sarajevo of his memories is fast being degraded by the current war torn state of his city. It is one of the most heartrending parts of the book. Reading it made me marvel at our collective capacity to make war when it exerts such a high toll.
Despite the grimness of the story, there are flashes of hope. Incongruous as it may seem, we see in Arrow’s character, the promise of a better future (clichéd as that may sound) when she refuses to forget the decent person that she once was and by choosing to be this person despite the ultimate sacrifice this entails.
Many books on all the different wars that have blighted our history have been undoubtedly been written but Cellist of Sarajevo is a worthy addition to our shelves and is a definite must read. And after reading it, I'm sure you will have the same urge I had to pass it on.