My current “thing” (i.e. whatever random topic snags my interest and sparks obsessiveness) is the Balkans. I’ve been poring over pictures of gorgeous scenery from Bulgaria to Serbia, jealously listening to colleague’s tales of travel to Croatia, and dragging my roommate to brunch at a popular local Balkan restaurant. Needless to say, when I was scouring the e-library for books to take on a recent trip, Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo was the first one I downloaded.
During the Siege of Sarajevo, a cellist watches from his window as 22 of his friends and neighbors, waiting in line for bread, are killed by a mortar attack in the blink of an eye. In defiance and grief, he decides to commemorate them by playing at the spot for 22 days. Meanwhile, a young man (Kenan) leaves home to get clean water for his family and must weigh the cost of kindness versus survival. Elsewhere, an elderly baker (Dragan) runs into an old friend and contemplates his past and his future. As the men prepare to cross paths with the cellist, a female sniper (self-christened Arrow) holds his life in her hands. As she guards him against the enemy, her own army challenges her moral boundaries. All four must confront the changes that war has wrought on their identity, and try to salvage their humanity in the face of devastation.
I don’t know much about the region, nor enough about the Bosnian War and this (like most historical fiction) is not the place to learn all that complex history. Yet, from his first words, Galloway makes you feel the mingled terror and love for Sarajevo its residents feel during the siege. Told over a single “average” day, all of these individuals encounter hardship that they’ve sadly become used to. They’re all terrified, but manage to soldier on.
The titular cellist goes unnamed, recognized only by his stirring music. He is revered, but not as relatable. In contrast, Kenan and Dragan represent the ordinary everyman. Their simple journeys, to get water or bread respectively, are wrought with traps as even crossing the street could mean stepping into a sniper’s line of vision. In spite of their fear, they both manage to take small acts of courage that demonstrate generosity can exist alongside inhumanity. Arrow was the hardest character for me to connect with. Despite engaging in sniping as a method of self-protection, I found her actions a little dubious, and even she questions her own morality; however, the end of her story definitely struck a chord within me as she fights to hold onto the remnants of her identity as she feels it slipping away by her actions.
Short but poignant, this book is a wonderfully written tribute to the victims of a poorly-remembered war. It doesn’t offer solutions or neatly-tied endings since it is a truly human story, one that incredibly is based on the real story of cellist Vedran Smailovic. The only reason it didn’t rate higher for me was that it didn’t haunt me afterwards – truly great and beloved books tend to fully stay in my mind years later, whereas certain points of this one were a strain to recall after a few short weeks.