Friday, September 26, 2008

Book Review: The Cellist of Sarajevo

"It doesn't matter what the world thinks of his city. All that matters is what he thinks. In the Sarajevo of his memory, it was completely unacceptable to have a dead man lying in the street. In the Sarajevo of today it's normal. He has been living in neither, has tried to live in a city that no longer exists, refusing to participate in the one that does."

The Cellist of Sarajevo is a small book about 22 days in what became the longest siege in the history of modern warfare, a four-year sniper and shelling campaign against the citizens of Sarajevo by Serb forces. But this story begins on May 22, 1992, when 22 people in a bread line were killed in a mortar attack. The cellist—who on that day decided not to buy bread— then begins a 22-day memorial service, playing Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor each afternoon "into the mortar-packed, sniper-infested streets of Sarajevo."

The book alternates among the stories of four main characters trapped in their own city: the cellist himself; Arrow, a sniper of snipers; Kenan, a young husband and father who must cross the dangerous city twice each week to get water; and Dragan, a baker who just wants to cross a street in safety. They were once four ordinary citizens of an ordinary city. Now they are survivors in a war-ravaged city, struggling each day to navigate in a city in which people are gunned down as if they were game pieces, picked off one by one.

It is a small book, quick to read, about a very big subject: how the human spirit insists on surviving and creating some semblance of meaning when the world has spun out of control. Steven Galloway's writing is clean and spare. The effect is powerful. Galloway's images stick. His characters are in a constant state of trying to reconcile the past and the present: this was my life then, this is my life now:
"The absence of shelling is almost like music, and she imagines if she closed her eyes she could convince herself that she was walking through the streets of Sarajevo as it used to be. Almost. She knows that in the city of her memory she wasn't hungry, and she wasn't bruised, and her shoulder didn't bear the weight of a gun. In the city of her memory there were always people out at this time of morning, preparing for the day to come. They wouldn't be shut inside like invalids, exhausted from another night of wondering if a shell was about to land on their house."
This book is based on real events that happened just 16 years ago, when I was a young married woman, buying our first car and soon to be expecting our first baby. Sarajevo, Serb, Bosnia: words on the evening news. While I shopped for a new car, people exactly like me were dashing across intersections, fervently praying that they weren't a sniper's target practice that day, trying to figure out how this happened to their lives, and when it would all end.
"There is no way to tell which version of a lie is the truth. Is the real Sarajevo the one where people were happy, treated each other well, lived without conflict? Or is the real Sarajevo the one he sees today, where people are trying to kill each other, where bullets and bombs fly down from the hills and the buildings crumble to the ground?"
Read this book. It is devastating, but the glimmer of hope is powerful, and Galloway is a language craftsman and a beautiful storyteller.

Other reviews:
Natasha at Maw Books here
Wendy at Caribousmom here
Jill at The Magic Lasso here
(If you have a review, please post your link in the comments!)


Anonymous said...

Like you I kept wondering what in the world I was doing while people were going through a hell on earth. I'm glad I read this book because I'm not familiar with the siege of Sarajevo.

Wendy said...

Fantastic review! Thanks for the link to mine :)

Jill said...

Probably one of my favorite books I've read this year.

Here is my review:

Take care,