The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway: Book Review

The Cellist of Sarajevo follows the lives of three ordinary people during the siege of Sarajevo in the early 90s. The thread that unifies the three narratives is the cellist, a man who comes out to play Albanoni’s adagio in G Minor for twenty-two days straight to honour the lives of twenty-two needlessly slaughtered innocent by-standers.

The story line of each of the characters is well-chosen because it shows the impact of war on the day-to -day life of ordinary people. Kenan is a family man in his early forties who makes his way across the war-torn city in order to secure water for his family and his ungrateful neighbour. Dragan is an older man in his sixties who has sent his wife and only son out of the country to safety in Italy. He tries to get to his work at the bakery but is stopped in the street by an old friend. The ordinariness of death overhangs them when their conversation ends and they have to walk across the street where snipers target and kill pedestrians.

The third narrative is about Arrow, a young woman who had joined the shooting club at university, and whose skills land her a job as a professional sniper. Although she kills for people on the ‘right’ side of the war, the moral territory she navigates is a slippery one. How do you kill for a living and remain human? When does it become wrong? When is it ever right? How do you not become what you hate?

These questions are essentially fundamental to all three narratives. How we conduct ourselves in terrible times when death hangs virtually around every corner, where dying is an ordinary occurrence, how do we stop ourselves from becoming less than who we are?

What Galloway does through these three tales is show that heroism and the path to preserving our humanity is not necessarily through grand gestures of heroism, although it doesn’t preclude that. Our essential goodness is preserved through small acts. There are moments in each of the narratives when Kenan, Dragan, and Arrow fail to rise to the heroic moment because they’re human and flawed.

But for each of them there is a moment where they have a choice that ultimately defines their course. That choice will lead them down one path or another. And the difference is between being able to live with themselves or not, between preserving their essential goodness or not.

The cellist offers a soulful lament. Where death has become matter of fact, his music is an outpouring of grief. It gives pause to remember beauty and the feelings that are evoked in its presence.

I liked that Galloway didn’t get into the nitty gritty details of the war in Sarajevo. He clearly shows a city at war…the ‘men in the hills’ and the greasy well-fed sycophants who took advantage of the war are a constant backdrop to the real story which is what war does to ordinary people. How we rise and fall, how we prevail or self-destruct, how civilized society is built over years and years and suddenly comes undone  by these singular unheroic acts.

I enjoyed this book. I found the narrative structure a little jarring but in the end it held together well through the exploration of the overarching themes of the book and of course, the cellist.

You can find out more about  Steven Galloway right here.


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