The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway. Pub 2008
I had read this only once before, not long after it first came out, but the story has stuck with me and it felt worthy of being read again (that, and “book with a place name in the title”).
Using as inspiration the story of a cellist who played at various sites in 1992-3 during the Siege of Sarajevo, the novel tells of three characters’ experiences during the siege, linking them through their knowledge and experience of a cellist (the fictional one plays daily at a bomb site near his home). Karan is trying to keep his family alive during the siege by making a weekly pilgrimage across the war zone for clean water. Dragan is trying to get to the bakery for his daily allotment of bread, while navigating the now-treacherous task of crossing the street. Arrow is a counter-sniper in the city, tasked with protecting the cellist. The timeline of the stories is vague but takes place across the 22-day vigil of the cellist at the bomb site. For each person, their fears, motivations, and strengths are revealed in what must have quotidian moments of unbelievable violence and upheaval – when the simple act of crossing the street becomes a life-or-death decision in a city that had not too long before been a centre of culture and commerce and light. 30 years on, I can only imagine that these scenes are now part of the everyday for millions in Ukraine, or Yemen, or Mali, or Afghanistan. As Galloway portrays, there are people who forget, and children who have never known, what life without a siege – with running water and electricity and food and school and work – is like.
I like the individual focused stories in this novel. It would be very easy and effective to tell a larger more sweeping story of the war, but these three vignettes make the telling both more poignant and more relatable. The immediate fears and the practical difficulties of life there is exemplified in these stories in ways that would be lost in a bigger novel.
I’ve read every book of Galloway’s, and while this one is the best, I did enjoy all of the others, especially The Confabulist. As he’s unlikely to publish any more, I’ll try to revisit his other works in years to come.
Fate: I’ll hand on to this one as part of my library of Canadian favourites.
1 – a book with a murder in it
13 – a book set somewhere I’ve never been
17 – a book with a place name in the title
28 – an old favourite
33 – a book by a Canadian author