The Cellist of Sarajevo
by Steven Galloway
Reviewed by Danielle Marshall
"It screamed downward, splitting air and sky without effort. A target expanded in size, brought into focus by time and velocity. There was a moment before impact that was the last instant of things as they were."
What happens to our humanity in the midst of brutality and hatred? How do we maintain dignity and kindness in the face of atrocities? How do we remember the shocking events of the past, to prevent repetition? Steven Galloway tackles all of these important questions, at an integral time in our history, in his new novel The Cellist of Sarajevo. By shining a light on the atrocities of past wars, he forces us to face what we may not want to and humanizes the media sound bites of war.
Inspired by the true story of Vedran Smailovic, who risked his life to play music in the street where 22 were killed while waiting to buy bread, Galloway's novel takes readers inside the dreadful 1990s siege of Sarajevo and, in turn, beautifully illustrates the individual toll on civilians during wartime. A short but wonderfully rich, elegiac, and moving book that personifies the story of a country in conflict.
Galloway tells the story of the Sarajevans' suffering from the viewpoints of three people who have lived there in good times and bad. The first narrator is a woman in her late 20s, now calling herself Arrow to compartmentalize the two lives she has lived: one as the devoted daughter of a police officer in happier times, the other as a sniper committed to killing soldiers before they can kill more innocent civilians. Before the war, she was an expert sharpshooter and competed at her university. Now she must use her skills for more urgent and base needs and, ultimately, as the protector of the cellist while he performs.
Kenan, the second narrator, is a seemingly older man of only 39 who is married with children. Formerly employed in an accountant's office, he now spends his days risking his life on the dangerous trek through town to get drinking water from freshwater springs at a distant brewery. His life has been reduced to the immediate needs of his family, and the risk is worth the reward of several liters of clean drinking water to keep his family alive.
And last, we hear the voice of Dragan, a 64-year-old bakery worker, who sent his wife and 19-year-old son to safety in Italy, but remains in Sarajevo out of a sense of responsibility to the city and because he thinks the war will one day end and life will return to normal. As the war rages on, he is defeated in spirit; he muses after one attack:
"The sniper will fire again, though, if not here then somewhere else, and if not him, then someone else, and it will all happen again, like a herd of gazelle going back to the water hole after one of their own is eaten there."
This is a powerful anti-war tale; the author admits that he has taken liberties with the timeline of events to tell a story, one that is powerfully true, if not historically accurate. The illumination of the way that wars overtake formerly beautiful and calm places, along with the adversity war brings, are the strengths of this deft, eloquent work of fiction.