Heather Reisman, CEO of Canada’s largest bookstore chain (Chapters/Indigo/Coles) chose The Cellist of Sarajevo as one of her Picks. A Heather’s Pick is a guaranteed read: if you read it and don’t like it, bring it back to the store for a refund. The thing is, though, Heather has pretty good taste. This book, by Canadian author Steven Galloway, is immensely readable and despite its depiction of the desolation and horrors of war, the book is ultimately hopeful.
Interestingly the premise of the book is simple, so simple in fact that in less skilled hands it might have been a bit of a dog’s breakfast. The cellist of the title (as a character) features only nominally in the novel. The book is actually concerned with the fortunes of three people: Arrow, a young female sniper; Kenan, a father who goes out to get water for his wife and children and an elderly neighbour and Dragan, an older man on his way to the bakery where he works. The novel alternates between characters, allowing the reader to spend time with and get to know each of them.
Truthfully, despite the fact that I am certainly old enough, I know very little about the conflict in Sarajevo. I guess I tend to bury my head in the sand when any sort of conflict takes place. I want the world to be a shiny, happy place where people get along.
I guess my desire for a conflict-free world is why I found this book so moving. Spend a few hours with Kenan as he braves the streets, making a treacherous journey to the brewery to collect fresh water for his family. He’s a father who only want to keep his children safe, feed and clothe them. As a mother, I can relate to that. But I live in Canada. When I want water I turn on the tap. I don’t risk death to visit a market where, if I’m lucky, I might score a bag of over-priced rice. I am not elated when the elecrticity comes on, allowing me the ability to charge my radio so that I can listen to the news. Galloway’s book allows us a glimpse into these hardships which happened not fifty years ago…but in the last decade! What kind of world do we live in that we allow this to happen? (That’s a rhetorical question, of course, impossible to answer.)
Each of Galloway’s characters is fully realized- complicated, angry, depressed, determined, and hopeful. Although he plays a minor part in the drama, the cellist of the title is actually the thread that binds these characters who are, otherwise, unknown to each other. The cellist plays Adagio in G Minor every afternoon at 4pm for 22 days to mark the deaths of 22 people who were killed while waiting in line to buy bread. It is his music that lifts the spirits of the three main characters and the others who come to hear him play.
Perhaps Galloway is saying that our appreciation of music, art of any sort, is what makes us human. While war certainly brings out the worst in people, it also allows us the opportunity to appreciate what we often take for granted. For 22 days, the cellist was able to remind the people struggling to get by in a city they no longer recognized as their own that they were alive.
It’s a beautiful novel.
Fantastic photos of Sarajevo during the conflict can be found here. You would almost think Galloway was inspired by some of these photos.