September 03, 2010

The Cellist of Sarajevo

By Katherine Haas

By Katherine Haas

The Cellist of Sarajevo. Galloway, Steven. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008. ISBN 978-1594483653.

The Siege of Sarajevo is the longest siege of a city in modern history. Lasting more than three years, the siege resulted in the death of thousands, the near starvation of tens of thousands more, and the destruction of a city that was once a cultural and political center in Eastern Europe.

The “Cellist of Sarajevo” is a poignant story told through the eyes of four different people inside the city during the siege. The cellist, a character based on Sarajevo resident and cellist Vedran Smailović, watched 22 of his neighbors die in a mortar attack as they were standing in line for bread. He resolves to play his cello every day at 4 p.m., the time the shell hit, for 22 days in honor of his friends and neighbors who were killed.

Though the connection between the cellist and the other three characters is not immediately clear, Galloway uses their stories to underscore the message of hope and of peace that is conveyed through the cellist’s music. As the book continues, switching continuously between viewpoints in a way that is both captivating and aggravating, the reader never again sees the city through the cellist’s eyes. Instead, the other three characters, their physical survival, their mental struggles, their existential angst, bring the besieged city to the reader’s senses.

From the elderly man who has sent his wife and son away to Italy so they may be safe and risks his own life on a daily trek through the city to his work in a bakery to the nondescript, middle-aged family man who struggles to provide for his family and must fetch clean water from the other side of the city for them, the thoughts of each character address the struggle and meaning of existence and the balance of risk, safety, comfort, and starvation. One can scarcely believe that people were once forced into such hopeless situations, but Galloway’s description of the outer and inner lives of these Sarajevans is far too detailed and compelling to allow for doubt.

Perhaps the most unique character is the sniper who changed her name in the hopes that she would one day be able to leave it all behind and return to the world she once knew. A tragic and compelling figure, she shows the world that not all soldiers are cold-blooded killers and the that the greatest damage the siege inflicted was on the minds and hearts of those who learned to thoughtlessly and blindly hate their unseen attackers.

Ultimately, the cellist’s notes leave an impression on the hearts and minds of the growing audience who come to hear him play, and when he puts down his bow, the residents of the city are somewhat changed, though their situation is as desperate as ever.

Despite the warmhearted message, the intense psychological ruminations of each character, and the accurate description of a city under siege, the novel is somewhat lacking. Upon finishing this book, it is easy to wish that one had been given more information about the siege itself and had seen the characters become more developed.

As the book closes, the reader is well acquainted with the horrors of war without feeling close to any of the characters or wondering what ultimately happened to them. 

“The Cellist of Sarajevo” is a good introduction to a topic that many English speakers, especially the younger generations, are unfamiliar with. It is a profound tale and serves as a gut wrenching warning about the tragedy of modern warfare. Indeed, the book reads less like a novel and more like a call to action and awareness.


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