Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

I've seen a couple of book blogs that discussed the closing of Borders. It's a little sad to me, since I have some good memories of going there. However, I don't think this is an indicator of the future of bookstores or printed books. I think that Borders failed because of various poor business decisions, including their inability to adapt first to selling books online and later to ebooks.

That said, today's entry is somewhat Borders-related, since I picked up The Cellist of Sarajevo after seeing it recommended by a Borders employee. I'm glad I did.

It's somewhat based on true events, including the cellist. The novel is set during the Siege of Sarajevo and features the loosely related stories of four characters The most obvious is the cellist, based on Vedran Smailović who played Albioni's Adiago in G for twenty-two days to honor the twenty-two people killed by mortar shells while they were buying bread. The cellist in the novel does the same.

The second character is Arrow, a young woman who was formerly on her university's sharp shooting team and was recruited by the army to defend Sarajevo from "the men on the hills." Her perspective on the conflict and her reason for using a nom de geurre is fascinating and shows her difficulties reconciling the person she was with who she has become:

From the first time she picked up a rifle to kill she has called herself Arrow. There are some who continue to call her by her former name. She ignores them. If they persist, she tells them that her name is Arrow now. No one argues. No one questions what she must do. Everyone does something to stay alive. But if they were to press her, she would say, "I am Arrow because I hate them. The woman you knew hated nobody."

The third character is Dragan, an older man who works at a bakery. His wife and teenage son have escaped to Italy and he is trying to get to the bakery where he works in order to eat. While he is trying to avoid snipers and shellings, he meets up with a friend of his wife. He tries to avoid her initially, because he meeting people from his pre-war life dredges up too many memories. Out of all the characters, Dragan seems to wrestle most with reconciling what Sarajevo was and what it has become.

Finally, the character I found most fascinating was Keenan. I've flagged several passages in the novel and most of them deal with him. Overall, Keenan is a survivor. His entire day is spent trying to make it to a brewery in order to get water for his family and his downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Ritovoski. Mrs. Ritovoski survived World War II, though she lost her husband at 25. Early on in the conflict, when she raised concerns over how bad things would get, Keenan told her "I will help you." Later, when it becomes difficult to get water, she comes back with her water containers and reminded him of her promise. She insists on using containers without handles, despite the extra work this creates for Keenan and his efforts to convince her to use other containers, to the point of offering her his own larger containers to use.

Despite risking his life to get water for his family and a neighbor he doesn't particularly like, Keenan isn't selfless. He's been affected by the conflict and his primary, if not only, goal is survival. At certain points, he realizes this and he may not like that trait, but it's there. For instance:

There are those who ran away as soon as the shells fell, their instinct for self-preservation stronger than their sense of altruism or civic duty. There are those who didn't run, who are now covered in the blood of the wounded, and they work with a myopic urgency to help those who can be saved, and to remove those who can't to whatever awaits then next. Then there's the third type, the group Keenan falls into. They stand, mouths gaping, and watch as others run or help. he's surprised he didn't run, isn't part of the first group, and he wishes he were part of the second.

The novel itself is powerfully written and through small tasks like getting food and drinkable water, it conveys how difficult life for the people in Sarajevo. Galloway doesn't focus on the details or ideology of the conflict, which makes the work all the more powerful since the people who are suffering most don't care about the why. Regardless of whether the war is just, the people are still forced to risk their lives while crossing streets watched by snipers, just to get enough water to last a few days.

Despite the fairly dark subject matter of the novel, I found it much less depressing than, say, The Vagrants. Possibly because, unlike the characters in The Vagrants, the characters didn't feel as beaten down. Also, the characters seemed to have more hope and it didn't feel quite so futile.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book and I would whole-heartedly recommend it.


  1. I like that Borders has personal recommendations from their employees; usually, even if one doesn't love a book that's been recommended, it is worthy reading.

    I've been drawn to the cover of this novel, as it is so mesmerizinig...the one I've seen has him playing before all the rubble. But, I never knew the details of the four characters before. What fascinating, and brave, lives they led. This sounds like a wonderful, though difficult to handle, book.

  2. what happen to Arrow in the last of the story?