The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

Review by Kamakshi Balasubramaniam

Terse and lyrical, Galloway’s novel about the siege of Sarajevo shows with deep poignancy how war shortens lives but  expands to the point of unbearable pain each moment lived in anticipation of tragedy.

A man’s life consists of fetching drinking water daily for his family and a neighbor. He must avoid becoming a target for a sniper. Whether one is an accidental target or a sniper has picked one out is of little consequence, when crossing a street means to dodge death. Blood flows, libraries burn, a bullet grazes you but leaves you unhurt. In this siege of hatred and violence, what do people live by?

“That something could be almost erased from existence in the landscape of a ruined city, and then rebuilt until it is new and worthwhile, gives him hope. A hope that, now, is one of a limited number of things remaining for the besieged citizens of Sarajevo, and for many, dwindles each day.”

With this hope, a cellist decides to play an adagio for 22 days to memorialize 22 citizens of Sarajevo. This symbolic act by a lone individual might seem of no practical consequence. To the enemy, however, this is too defiant an act to be allowed.  The cellist is going to be shot, but he must be saved.

As one of the characters says:  “If this city is to die, it won’t be because of the men on the hills, it will be because of the people in the valley. When they’re content to live with death, to become what the men on the hills want them to be, then Sarajevo will die.”

During a war strange things thrive. Speculators ride around in powerful motor cars. A black market flourishes.

Equally, hope lives on in the ruins of falling things, despite broken lives, in the destroyed “promise of a happy life that seemed almost inviolable” not long ago.

“They will put every brick back, replace every window, patch every hole. They will rebuild the city without knowing whether this is the last time it will be done. They will earn the right to do this, any way they can, and when it is done, they’ll rest.”

I am not a fan of quoting from books, but I couldn’t help myself because it is not possible to paraphrase any part of Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, a marvelous and memorable book.

Buy from UK / USA

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