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Cellist of Sarajevo - Steven Galloway
Member Name: fizzywizzy
Cellist of Sarajevo - Steven Galloway
Advantages: Very evocative, thrillingly suspenseful, great characterisation
"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.
Summary: An act of humanity amid the horror of war