The Cellist of Sarajevo is a book that gave me a complete insight into a world that seems impossible to describe: a city besieged and ruined, where even a simple walk to work takes on the terror and strategy of a horror film.
For those who do not remember the event itself, the Siege of Sarajevo lasted 4 years, from April 1992 to February 1996, and was the longest siege of a capital city in modern history.
Sarajevo was the capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovenia and during the Bosnian War which started after the breakup of the old Yugoslavia, the Serbs spent 44 months attacking the relatively weak Bosnians inside the city, trying to make them accept the creation of a new Serbian state. For all of this time the city was attacked by tanks, mortars, machine guns and all sorts of heavy artillery. It is estimated that over 10,000 people were killed and many more were injured.
Unlikely heroes emerge during times of war, and it was a musician from the Sarajevo String Quartet that became a symbol of resistance and strength. The musician was called Vedran Smajlović and he became known as the Cellist of Sarajevo; famous for playing Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor in the ruins of his city during the siege and for both keeping up the spirits of the residents through his music as well as becoming a symbol of defiance.
It is this story that is taken up and dramatised by the author, Steven Galloway, in his book.
The book starts with the cellist himself; spiritually destroyed by the killing and destruction around him, he starts to play his cello at the same time every day, in the crater made by a bomb that killed dozens of people as they queued for bread. The cellist feels that he has to honour their passing and plays the same music every day for twenty two days; a day for every person killed. His playing becomes a symbol of hope for everybody living within the walls of the besieged city.
The cellist, sitting in the crater every day and playing, links together the story of the three people whose lives are retold in the book. Arrow, a young woman enlisted into the army because of her unusual skills as a counter-sniper; Kenan, a man with a young family who he is desperately trying to save; and Dragan who has been working in the same bakery for over 40 years. Through these three separate stories we learn what it is like to live life in a besieged city. Sometimes the stories cross, sometimes they come across the brave cellist in their travels, but mainly they are trying just to get through this terrible time; waiting until the shooting stops.
The scenes that are described are incredibly graphic. The terror of turning an everyday act such as crossing a street, walking to work, or going out to buy bread into a decision that puts your life at risk is difficult to comprehend. However the sense of fear in the book is very real. I found myself on the edge of my seat as the characters waited hour after hour to cross a simple bridge. The uncertainty was incredibly portrayed so that as the characters wait, hesitate - try to pluck up the courage to cross the street - hesitate again. You feel the terror with them - will a bullet come whizzing out of nowhere? If they run fast, will the hidden sniper be distracted or looking the other way? How can you tell? They sit, hidden and protected, waiting for somebody else to cross first. If that person gets shot, you move to another bridge or street; if they scuttle across safely you are left to wonder - was the sniper distracted - will he narrow his sights on you next?
Although the story is one of mundane tasks such as getting water for the family, walking to work, meeting friends - the tension in the book and the unique situation that the main characters find themselves in creates an absorbing story. I read this book very quickly, full of tension and worry. The ending could not be guessed; so many died or were wounded that the outcome seemed like a game of Russian Roulette.
My favourite character was Arrow; not necessarily because she was the only female character, but because of the background that had turned her into the strong, Ramboesque killing machine that even the men were in awe of. Despite being a strong woman, Arrow also has her vulnerable side, and this is revealed as the story plays out and we learn about her history. Arrow chooses her name with care, losing her previous identity and trying to forget what she used to be in normal, pre-siege life. Even though she is a paid killer, she tries to maintain her sense of justice and decency. Arrow, chooses her targets with care. Every day putting her own life at risk, she centres the opposing forces in her viewfinder, and kills only the men that she knows are guilty of inflicting violence themselves. Her aim is amazing; instinctively and almost lovingly she sights a victim and watches him for a while through her veiwfinder, before deciding his fate. Sometimes the life is saved, and sometimes the bullet of death flies home to its target. Like the cellist, the character of Arrow is based on a real character from the seige.
Kenan is an ordinary family man, trapped by the siege into becoming a hero every day of his life. He lives with his wife and small children in the flat they have always had; but with frequent power cuts, a lack of food and no running water, this life has become a matter of mere survival. Kenan watches the water that is stored in jugs and buckets gradually run out day by day, and puts his own life at risk several times a week as he crosses the city to the only source of water. Tying a variety of plastic containers to his back, he clanks across the old town, forcing himself to cross the sniper crossed roads and to conquer his fear.
The third character, Dragan is a slightly older man. He has been made homeless and has lost his family; forced into living with his sister's family he no longer knows who he can trust. He makes his way across the city to go to his job in the bakery every day, as this is the only normality that he knows and the only way to keep sane.
I found this was one of the most memorable and moving books that I have read for a long time. Each of the three characters was carefully and cleverly described, so that I immediately felt a bond and soon started to care if they survived.
In addition, I very much enjoyed discovering the history behind the news broadcasts that I saw year after year, but which I never really fully understood. The Bosnian War seemed so slow and complicated as it was happening that it was difficult to look back to the origins and to see the motivation or guess the ending. This book brings it all to life in a very human way, and it was easy to start to look at various websites to try to understand what happened. The term Sniper Alley was something that I heard on the news on an everyday basis but which meant nothing to me until I read this book. Now I hear the words and I can feel the fear of the small crowd of people trying to work up the courage to cross a road that they know could be covered by the snipers fire. There is not much gore or physical agony in this book, but the mental torture of being a prisoner in your own city and living a life of constant deprivation and fear is more effective than any disturbing gore-fest.
Although I have recommended this book to many of my friends, all of whom have enjoyed the read, I am also aware that it is a very controversial book.
The Cellist himself, Vedran Smajlovic, was very offended that Steven Galloway had taken his story without actually speaking to him first. He feels that his identity and actions were stolen and misrepresented. He has allegedly demanded financial compensation for this.
Steven Galloway is a Canadian and The Cellist of Sarajevo was his third novel. The book has been nominated for, and won many awards, becoming an international bestseller.
The Cellist of Sarajevo was published in 2008 by Atlantic Books and is 227 pages.
Having read some really good reviews on this book I decided to see if my local library had it in and I've just finished reading it. At 223 pages I thought this was going to be a quick read for me, but I found that I couldn't get into it at first. The idea appealed to me, the opening chapter was good, so what went wrong?
Perhaps I was expecting too much too soon, so I gave it a break and restarted the following day. Fortunately this went much better as I stopped reading it as a review and just allowed myself to feel where it took me.
The Cellist (of Sarajevo) is a book about the actions of one man and the way people responded to those actions. In doing so we, the reader, learn about the ordinary lives of some very extraordinary people in a war-torn city. The story as such is extremely well researched and written, despite the enormous amount of controversy about whether the author, Steven Galloway, was making money from the real story of the man behind the book's idea, the real cellist.
The input that the cellist gives to the story is minimal. He is already a man without a job, since there is no longer any orchestra, and he plays for himself as the one thing that keeps him feeling anything at all. Indeed, he wonders if he will have 'enough Adagio's left in him to play to his hope. When a bomb decimates a line of people queuing for bread, killing twenty-two people and wounding seventy, he makes a pact with himself to play once a day, every day at 4pm, for the twenty-two people who died.
Arrow is the name of a young woman whose expertise as a sniper is used to counterattack the snipers killing those in the city, something that confused me. I think that shows how soon we sometimes get used to the atrocities of war. 'Sarajevo?' isn't that a country that had a civil war a while back?' that's my reaction. Arrow won't use her real name because she is ashamed at what she's doing. Although she saves lives, she has to kill others to do that. Even though she is doing much as ordered, she is allowed the freedom of who or when to kill. When she is given the duty of protecting the cellist, her planning and some good luck are some of what keeps the cellist alive. He plays amidst constant bombing and sniping, so it's a miracle he did survive.
Arrow's character was the one I felt the most for though why I am uncertain. Maybe because of the insanity of war and the way she questions her actions makes her seem more real to me. The very fact that she won't allow herself to have her 'real name' makes this more poignant.
Kenan is a husband and father who risks his life every few days to fetch water for his family and the widow who lives in his building, a grumpy old lady who doesn't even seem grateful. Terrified he will get killed and even more terrified of being forced into the army, his life is also touched by the cellist and his message of hope.
Then there is a man called Dragan, who doesn't know who to trust. Almost crippled by fear he seems the least courageous, but he's not a young man and he did manage to get his wife and son to safety. After forty years of working in a bakery he makes the daily journey even when he doesn't have to work. He remembers the city as it was in peacetime and ponders on the question of did it really exist? Was there a time when guns and bombs weren't the norm? Dragan's memories tells us of the city as it was in the days before the war, the walks he took with his family, the casual friendships, all gone now.
In his Afterward, Galloway tells how he came to write the book, the people he interviewed, the courage he found and the sense of the people he got by trying to learn how to think like a Sarajevan. He says the book is fiction, yet based on an incident, which captured the imagination of the people.
I hadn't intended to do a long review on this book. It's been admirably reviewed by a number of people, all who gave their own point of view. I would like my name added to those that would ask you this,' can you bear to read it?' It isn't horrific, though it's frightening to think of what these people went through. There aren't any gory descriptions; the horror comes from what man does to his fellow man and how ordinary people learn to exist with it.
It's a thoughtful book rather than anything. By trying to give us an idea of what it's like to live in a war-torn world and still keep your humanity, the author has written a powerful novel with some haunting imagery. I felt for all the characters and I trembled with them. I tried to understand what it would be like to have all my life stripped from me and couldn't. We have become immune to wars in different countries, which is hard to believe given what our parents and grandparents went through in World War 2. I have my own stories given to me by my mother who lost her first husband and two children in that war. How on earth did she survive? How to go on day after day not knowing who will be taken from you?
This is the horror of war. People aren't necessarily brave; they just try to carry on living. It humbled me reading it; I have barely done it justice.
I'm glad I read the book and would recommend it.
My copy was borrowed. You can get this on Amazon for £4.55 new and 1p used plus postage.
Thank you for reading.
©Lisa Fuller 2011.
I had heard a lot about this novel from friends and colleagues so was keen to get a copy to to see what all the fuss was about.
To start with, I did not find it particularly easy to 'get in to' which always spoils my enjoyment of a book. Both the content (people's lives in the Bosnian civil war) and the style (three different characters' stories told in parallel) did not make for an easy read.
The book follows Arrow, Dragan and Kenan who live in Sarajevo whilst it is under seige; all linked (eventually) by the cellist who plays daily in a street in the war-torn city to mark the deaths of massacre victims.
I don't know whether it was to add an element of realism, but I often found the wording clumsy and I felt myself paying more attention to semantics rather than to the story itself. The novel almost felt as if it had been translated into English rather badly, which is not the case.
I was only really interested in one of the characters of the novel, Arrow the only female and a sniper. Her storyline was action-packed and thrilling. Also, the fact that she was an active participant in the war made it more bearable to read about her than the other two characters who were all too obviously victims. I found their helplessness disturbing.
This novel brought the reality of war a little too close to home, certainly for bedtime reading which is when I do most of my reading. There was only the faintest glimmer of hope in the vulnerable figure of the cellist.
After discussing the novel with the rest of the group, learning more about the war, and listening to the piece of music that the cellist plays, I felt pretty much depressed, as did the rest of the group. I would say that the book is rather mediocre and I wouldn't recommend this to anyone.
A couple of months ago I was looking for a selection of books to take on holiday with me. Some prime "reading time" was ahead of me and I wanted to make the most of it.
I found myself perusing the shelves in WH Smiths where they had their usual abundance of "BOGOF" offers, and saw this - The Cellist of Sarajevo. Remembering a particularly fantastic review written by Fizzywizzy (do go and read it if you have any interest in purchasing this book - it is a far better review than I can hope to achieve now!), I picked the book up and added it to my collection.
The book is set in the City of Sarajevo, part of the former Yugoslavia, in the early 1990s. It still amazes me that such a large conflict took place right on our doorstep, in what many Brits would consider to be just a normal "holiday" destination. A conflict that lasted for several years, was incredibly bloody, and yet has largely been forgotten about. For me, Sarajevo was a city that had hosted the World Athletics Championships in 1990, just a very short time before.......how could somewhere so "normal" change so quickly? And how is it, that we actually have very little awareness of it (apart from in the Eurovision song contest when former Yugoslav countries now make up a great number of contestants!).
On 27th May 1992, in Sarajevo, a city that by this time had been under siege for many months, people were queueing in a market square for bread. A simple chore, and something we would all take for granted. Yet on that day, a mortar bomb hit the bread queue and killed 22 people, wounding 70 others.
A local man, a cellist, decided that for 22 days - one for each of those killed while buying bread - at 4pm, the time that the mortar struck, he would enter the market square and play Albanoni's Adagio in G, a moving piece of music that would be recognisable to most. This display of support for his fellow city folk, forms the main thread of this book.
But his is not the only story - the Cellist of Sarajevo follows three ordinary people as they face another day in a city at war. Remember, that this is set in the early 1990s - not that far back. Remind yourself of all the things that you would have taken for granted 15 years ago........and then read on.
Dragan is a bakery worker. In ordinary circumstances he would have retired by now. But war is no ordinary circumstance, and he realises he is lucky to have a job. Even on a day off, he makes the journey to the bakery to get bread and to have something to eat, thereby saving some of the meagre food rations for his sister and her family to eat at home. Every day, he risks his life to get something to eat.
Kenan lives with his wife and children in an apartment block. War has stopped the regular supply of electricity and water. Kenan therefore makes a treacherous journey every few days to fill plastic bottles with water for his family and his elderly neighbour. He takes his life in his hands as he makes his way through the besieged city, and makes his way back again, hampered even more by the weight of the full water containers.
It is not just mortar bombs that are falling on those that are trying to go about their daily lives, but snipers are perched in disused apartment blocks, behind burnt out trams.......aiming randomly at those people trying to survive by collecting bread, and water.
Arrow - a name that she has given herself to keep her "war" persona removed from her "pre-war" life - was a university student. An intelligent and talented woman who happened to be in the university shooting team. Her role in this war is to use her shooting skills to try and kill some of those snipers who are aiming at civilians. Arrow has no interest in killing civilians, only those who are killing others. She is, in effect, a soldier, who doesn't want to be there.
The book follows these three people as they try to survive another day in Sarajevo.......as the cellist plays again in memory of the 22 people killed while queuing to buy bread, and in support of those determined to carry on.
This book is well written - I was easily able to conjour up images in my mind of a city ruined by war. Perhaps I was bringing together all those news reports I have seen over the years of Beirut, and other more recent television images from the Middle East. It doesn't matter where those images came from, as I read this book, I could "see" the courage, the fear, the desperation of these people as they tried to do the things that I take for granted. Taking their life in their hands as they cross the road, yet determined not to let "the men in the hills" stop their survival.
One thing that did strike me when reading this book, is that two of the stories are set over just one day. Kenan's story is of going to get water - his journey spans a day. Dragan's story again spans just one day as he goes to get bread. Yet Arrow's story spans several days, as does the Cellist's by default. What could be one single story, with four branches, has instead become 3 or 4 separate stories, that all just happen to be taking place in the same location, at about the same time.
It is not a long book - 223 pages, and because of the nature of the individual stories, it has short chapters, making it ideal to read if you don't have much time to pick up a book. However, you may well be better to save it for one of those rare days when you can be uninterrupted so that you can seccumb to inability you may have to put this book down!
I would thoroughly recommend this book - it made me think, and it made me realise how lucky I am. I have read it twice - the second time looking more carefully to pick out detail. And no doubt I will read it again.
The one thing that I didn't like about this book, and the only reason I am knocking a star off my rating, is that although the incident of the mortar bomb in May 1992 was fact, and there really is a cellist who came out to play Albanoni's Adagio for 22 days in memory of those killed while queueing for bread........the author says that he has not based the character of his cellist on the real one.....! Well, I 'm sorry - but if you have a real incident on a real date, with real people involved, and then you go and write a story about the same incident, on the same date, with...ooh, look, the same people in it, then you are basing your character on that person. Obviously there is some legal requirement to say "it is coincidence and a work of fiction" but to me it is saying something along the lines of "plagerism" and "identity theft"!! There is a whole section of the book at the end of it explaining the "coincidence" that is the Cellist of Sarajevo.
Published by Atlantic books 2008 www.atlantic-books.co.uk
Author - Steven Galloway
Cover price £7.99 but often on offer as part of a multibuy at WHSmith or Waterstones
About a year ago, I read an intriguing article in The Times about a man called Vedran Smailovic. A professional musician when the Bosnian war began in 1992, he was one of thousands of ordinary people who became trapped in the siege of Sarajevo. Nobody might ever have heard of Vedran outside of his home city, however, if it were not for his remarkable act of protest, where he defied the snipers firing into the city on a daily basis to play his cello for 22 successive days at the scene of a shelling that had killed 22 people queuing to buy bread. Dressed in evening tails, photographs of this defiance became iconic images of the war and made artists from David Bowie to U2 to Pavarotti clamour to record music with him. But this fame was not welcome, and the cellist turned down all offers to instead retreat into quiet obscurity in Northern Ireland once the war ended - that was until Canadian author Steven Galloway wrote the best-selling "The Cellist of Sarajevo" in 2008, thrusting Smailovic once more into the unwelcome spotlight and drawing angry accusations of stolen identities and cashing in on another man's bravery from the cellist. This controversy has probably helped the novel become a bestseller every bit as much as the content has, and that content is powerful stuff, the sort of novel that is cat-nip to book clubs.
Set during the siege of Sarajevo, the novel introduces us first to the eponymous cellist, an unnamed man who once played in the city's symphony orchestra, but who now spends his days just surviving the war that rages around him. One day, this cellist witnesses a shell falling on a marketplace near his apartment; it kills 22 people who were queuing hopefully to buy bread, a rare commodity in a city that is slowing starving. Greatly grieved by this act, the cellist stands shocked by his window for 24 hours, then dresses in his evening suit and takes his cello out to the crater that is all that remains of yesterday's queue. Here, he plays Albinoni's Adagio, a piece whose score was symbolically rescued from the fires of Dresden and reconstructed to form a beautiful piece of music - the cellist then vows to play it once each day for each victim at the time the shell exploded*, and retires back inside to await his next performance.
The novel then takes us along three pathways through the city, experiencing briefly the lives of three civilians who are each in some way connected to the cellist. Firstly there is Arrow, a female sniper who has joined the ranks of those trying to protect the city from its besiegers. She is assigned by her unit commander to protect the cellist, a symbol of hope and defiance to the city's residents, as he plays each day. Then we meet Kenan, a man in his forties whose existence revolves around making a journey twice a week to fetch clean water for his family and elderly neighbour, the ungrateful Mrs Ristovski, from one of the city's last remaining sources. This is a journey that is fraught with danger - even more so on his return when the full canteens encumber him and make him a larger and slower target for snipers - but bringing his family along for help will just endanger them as well. As a member of the cellist's audience, Kenan finds a little hope and normality brought back to his life. Finally there is the elderly Dragan, who has to master his fear and maintain a semblance of civility as he crosses a city he no longer recognizes as his own to work in his now vital job as a baker; Dragan hears of the cellist but as much as he wishes to hear him play, prefers instead to concentrate on earning bread for his family and getting home again without being shot.
Although a remarkable story, it is written without any histrionics, in a pared-down style that feels more like you are reading a short story than a novel. The acts of Kenan and Dragan, those of ordinary men living in extraordinary times, were unexceptional in the context of the war but are courageous to our eyes. Galloway keeps the language describing their acts understated, while making clear to us just how dangerous their missions to keep others alive were - it takes writing of some considerable skill to achieve this. I quickly became absorbed and engaged as a reader, and it was the sort of novel where each time you put the book down you are desperate to pick it up again to know what happens next. But this novel doesn't just work as a piece of fiction. I found that this book exposed more of the fear, grief, hunger and human suffering in Sarajevo than any news report or documentary I have seen on the war; it makes you want to go out and find out more about what happened and why, to truly consider what it would be like if your nice, safe life disappeared into the black hole ofa civil war. Whatever your feelings on whether he should have used someone who is clearly Smailovic as a centrepiece or not, it works very well and the hand is not overplayed - Galloway uses him to weave his various plot threads together and to give a structure to a novel that would otherwise have been rambling, but does not make him the sole focus of the story. The ending is perhaps inevitable, but that doesn't detract from what is a very effective and moving book.
In an interview with a Canadian news channel, Galloway has said that, "I really wanted to write a book about what high-pressure, wartime situations do to ordinary people -- not professional soldiers, or generals or politicians". This is exactly what you get in "The Cellist of Sarajevo"; four perspectives on what it is like to live in the middle of a civil war, in a city under siege, where shells and snipers make the outside (and often also the inside) world a very dangerous place. Arrow, apparently based on a Danish radio interview with a female sniper during the Bosnian war, is the nearest the narrative gets to the perspective of a soldier. Although effective in her role, Arrow lacks the training and detachment of a professional soldier, and we feel the anger and the crisis of confidence that she tries to control as she goes about her work; she sees herself as different from the enemy snipers, as she shoots only soldiers while they kill unarmed civilians. She does not like killing and tries not to hate these men for who they are, but wants to defend her city from "the men on the hills" (the people in Galloway's book are never given identifying labels as they were in media coverage) and feels compelled to use her civilian target shooting skills in this way. There is much food for thought in the ethical issues that Arrow explores, and it provides a fascinating perspective on the situation that none of the other characters could have fully provided.
In the end, what is left is the Adagio - music rescued from the wasteland of a ruined city in much the way that Galloway has rescued the threads of his story out of another ruined city. In both cases, a thing of beauty has come out of despair and destruction. The controversy over using unacknowledged people from real life rumbles on, however. As with "Titanic", which also suffered controversy due to embellishing characters who had existed in reality, perhaps it was too soon to do the same here - although the embellishments in this novel were almost entirely positive, the fact the real people are still alive (certainly in the case of the cellist, I'm not sure if anyone has yet identified Arrow) and unconsulted leaves a somewhat sour air hanging over an otherwise outstanding book. Powerful and wonderfully well written, it is a novel that comes highly recommended from me, however much it shamelessly borrowed from Smailovic in its construction.
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Pages: 288 (paperback)
RRP: £7.99 (currently £3.76 on Amazon.co.uk)
* The real Smailovic didn't quite do this; "I am not stupid, I wasn't looking to get shot by snipers so I varied my routine" he has said.
When this journey is first embarked upon, there is an element of surprise due to the nature of the language Galloway uses. Considering the subject matter, one would have thought that a wider vocabulary would be needed to discuss the intricacies of the turbulent subject of war.
Perhaps not though, as the predicament of the individual protagonists that the book conveys, and the mortal dangers they face on a daily basis are beautifully written, albeit in a simplistic fashion.
It is interesting how the four key characters are all separately drawn to the Cellist, who steadily becomes less important. What he stands for gradually turns out to be of greater magnitude.
Through the mundane activities featured in a daily fight to survive, it is clear how easily numbness and de-sensitisation occurs when ordinary humans are repeatedly confronted with atrocities and muderous actions. We see regular people who have normalised the tumultuous world around them.
From another point of view we see a sniper character trying to detach herself from the gruesome reality of the job she has to do, as well as disassociating herself from other killers. She only shoots soldiers, thus her killing is legitimate.
This subject matter is still obviously a sensitive one, it wasn't that long ago when these modern day massacres were occurring. The author has completed the story telling well and in such an empathetic manner, he should be commended.
Ultimately the ending does not fit the rest of the book and falls a bit flat. The tension that is felt in the build up to the end of the twenty two days is lost as we follow Arrow to the book's conclusion.
I would have liked an epilogue here-perhaps what happened to the four protagonists after the war and indeed the Cellist.
One of the cruelest events of the siege of Sarajevo was the shelling in 1992 of a group of civilians as they queued in the street in the hope of buying some bread. Twenty-two people lost their lives. Not long afterwards a musician living in an apartment overlooking the scene dragged his cello out onto the street and there he played Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor at a different time each day for twenty-two days. Sometimes a small crowd would gather to listen, often bringing flowers to lay in front of the cellist or in the crater caused by the shelling.
"The Cellist of Sarajevo" is a fictionalised account of this event, told from the points of view of three unrelated citizens of Sarajevo.
Dragan has been living with his sister and her family since the time came when his apartment was no longer safe to live in. He had already managed to get his wife and teenage son out of Sarajevo to safety in Italy, staying behind to look after their home. Dragan is a baker and every day he dodges the snipers' bullets as he tries to make his way to work.
Arrow is the pseudonym adopted by a young woman who, having been a member of her university archery team was recruited to become a counter-sniper by the forces defending the city from the Cetniks in the hills surrounding Sarajevo. Shortly after the cellist starts his playing in the street, Arrow is assigned by her unit commander to make sure no sniper kills the cellist as he plays.
Kenan lives with his wife and children in a small apartment; he dreads the day that the recruiting squad knocks at this door and he is sent to fight at the front. It's not that Kenan is a coward but he, like so many others, Arrow included, feels that the people of Sarajevo have been made to hate people they felt no hatred towards before. Kenan might not be fighting on the frontline but every day he faces a personal battle to feed his family. Without running water Kenan, like everyone in the besieged city, has to make the journey across town evading the bullets and hoping not to be caught in the shelling, in order to fetch water from the brewery, returning with heavy containers that slow him down, putting his life at more risk.
The narration alternates between each character and, although they don't know each other and never meet, the three strands of the story move together towards the climax of the story. The main characters as well as those who only appear briefly are all beautifully drawn with a great deal of economy but appearing as complete as we need them to be. The strength of the characterisation makes you care about the characters very quickly, and so you must because the action of the story takes place over a very short period. The skilled way that the author, Steven Galloway, creates such depth of character so quickly is important because their experiences are more important than their history but I do believe you need to make a connection with the characters in order not only to care about what happens to them but to really live the experiences with them.
I can't remember a book that has provoked in me such a feeling of really experiencing what the characters do. In besieged Sarajevo the simplest journey could result in death or injury. People would wait for hours to cross a road, or see others take a chance and be killed before they could get to the other side. A short walk during peacetime now took hours as detours had to be made because of bombed bridges, burning cars or simply the threat of hidden gunmen just waiting to find a target, any target. As Kenan and Dragan made their way around the city, sheltering behind burnt out tram cars or ducking down as they tried to cross bridges that left them exposed to gunmen, my heart was pounding and my mouth went dry. I could feel myself holding my breath as I waited to find out what would happen next, sometimes I gasped out loud and one scene brought tears to my eyes and I realised my hands were shaking as I held the book. In the scenes in which Arrow is at work, hiding in some bombed out flat, keeping down for fear of being spotted, with her rifle trained on some unknowing target my heart was in my mouth, the tension was electric. I felt myself in Arrow's shoes, watching for the slightest indication of danger, alert to every noise and shadow.
The cellist only features directly in the prologue as Galloway describes the way he comes out of his building, positions himself in the street and starts to play for the first time. We never get to know why he does this, we only have a brief insight into how he watched the shell split the air as it shrieked from the sky and hit the queue of would be shoppers. All we know is that he intends to play for twenty two days, one for each person killed.
This lack of connection with the cellist doesn't have a negative effect on the story. It's not necessary at all to know why he did that, the characters in the book discuss it but I found it quite poetic and mysterious not to know. What is important is the way that the musician is associated with humanity and culture; it's important for those defending the city to keep the cellist alive because he represents something good and is a sign that there is some humanity left in this bloody mess. The idea of how culture - music, literature, theatre - enriches our lives crops up several times in the novel. Kenan remembers having been to the theatre and dreams of the day his daughter goes off to the cinema with a boyfriend he doesn't much care for. When the electricity comes on unexpectedly, he hopes it might stay on long enough to charge his radio. There might be a lack of water, electricity and food but there are other things missing that make a life rather than simply an existence.
The real cellist of Sarajevo is a man named Vedran Smailovic; he played for several orchestras including the Sarajevo Philharmonic. When he played in the bombed out street he caught the imagination of millions of people worldwide. Many other musicians were inspired to write songs or musical pieces about the event. Smailovic collaborated with children's' author Elizabeth Wellburn to create a book "Echoes from the Square". However, he did not have anything to do with this novel. The author did not even contact him though it is said he did so AFTER the book was finished. Smailovic, however, claimed to have known nothing about it until, now living in Northern Ireland, he was told about it by Elizabeth Wellburn. By this time the novel was already in bookstores.
Smailovic was filled with rage and claimed that his name and identity had been stolen. He said he had been advised to take legal action to seek damages and an apology. Galloway, on the other hand, states in the foreword to the book that the story is inspired by the cellist and is not directly ABOUT him. He countered that in taking the cello out onto the street Smailovic was carrying out something very public that couldn't be ignored. Indeed, what Galloway has done hardly seems different from what other artists have done in writing songs. People like Paul McCartney and Bono were desperate to play with Smailovic yet they don't seem to attract any criticism or allegations of exploitation.
Many novels have been written about real people but Galloway doesn't even name his cellist. However, the first edition to be published in Galloway's native Canada used Smailovic's picture on the cover. It has been suggested that Galloway could have contacted Smailovic prior to publication and offered some kind of financial deal though the author says that it shouldn't be the case that authors are required to pay the source of their inspiration. In an interview in the Times newspaper he suggested that such action would make him "a pariah of the literary world". I'm inclined to agree; what Smailovic did is now in the public domain, you can read about it anywhere. Can the cellist be said to hold the rights to what happened? I don't think so.
Now the book is an international bestseller. The rights have been sold to Hollywood and friends of the cellist have been very vocal in their criticism of Galloway asking how he can enjoy cashing his royalty cheques. Personally, I feel that Smailovic's integrity has been brought into question. He has recently claimed that there have been many inaccuracies in the reporting of the events of the siege of Sarajevo and the part he played. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant when considering "The Cellist of Sarajevo"; the book is inspired by one event of the war and the story is told as a series of reactions to what the cellist does. He is never the focus of the story.
Regardless of the controversy surrounding this novel I feel that it is a very important piece of contemporary writing that has not had the mainstream acclaim it deserves. It is beautifully written without a trace of pretension yet it speaks on so many levels. As a simple account of how the siege affected the lives of the people of Sarajevo it is no less than brilliant but it provides so much to think about in terms of how we treat each other, how war is the work of politicians not ordinary people and how people don't allow themselves to be stripped of their humanity when faced by the horrors of war.