It is always a welcome change for me when I can put down the YA novels, and get back to reading books that are intended for adults.
It is even more welcome, when the book I choose to read is one as moving, and impressive as The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Canadian author Steven Galloway.
The Cellist of Sarajevo takes place in the war-torn Bosnian capital, during the height of the siege that lasted from 1992 to 1996. The people of the city lived in fear of the constant shelling, and the sniper fire that would rain down from the nearby hills, making daily life nearly impossible to live. The shells destroyed homes all over the city, and the snipers took thousands of lives from the people of the once-vibrant city. They made even the simplest of road crossings a dangerous event.
And this is where the beauty of this novel lies. In the daily struggle of the characters, simply trying to make it through another day, all with the constant hope that one day, their beloved city would be returned to them, and would be safe to live in once again.
The novel follows a trio of characters, with alternating chapters that establishes their point of view, and their struggle. Kenan is a man who is doing little more than trying to get water for his family. In order to do this, he must load up a precarious ensemble of bottles and yoke them to himself, before making the treacherous cross-city trek up to the brewery, one of the few remaining places where clean water can be found. The detours he takes through the city, the people he meets along the way, and the tragedy that he must encounter truly makes him into a sympathetic character. All he wants is some water to drink, and cook with. Maybe a little so that he can shave would be a great luxury.
Dragan is a man who wants to get to the bakery he used to work at, in order to get a meal. This way, he will not need to eat any of the food that his family will have for their meager dinner. His quest is simple, and honourable, and he also meets tragedy along the way, at one of the intersections being patrolled by a distant sniper. During his hours of waiting, Dragan reconnects with an old friend of the family, and is faced with very humanizing situations once the bullets begin to fire.
The final character is called Arrow, a Bosnian counter-sniper, tasked to do her best to protect the city that she loves. She is faced with several wrenching decisions as to when it is right to pull the trigger, and when things are better off left alone. The Arrow chapters are consistently great, and there are some extremely tense moments as we sit in a building with her, ready to fire at the slightest movement.
Bringing all of these characters together is the Cellist, an unnamed man who has made a name for himself in these harshest of living conditions. One day, when 22 people are killed by a mortar attack while waiting outside in a bread line, the Cellist decides that he will go outside, and on the most dangerous streets in the world at the time, and play Albinoni’s Adagio. He decides that he will do this at the same time every day, for 22 straight days, once for every person who lost their life in the bread line attack. He goes about this task simply, and straightforwardly, usually unaware of what is going on around him. He doesn’t notice the occasional crowds that watch him play, while they are pressed against walls across the street to avoid sniper fire.
And he doesn’t know that Arrow is in the buildings above, trying to protect him from the deadly fire of a sniper with the singular goal of ending his daily concerts.
The Cellist of Sarajevo is a wonderfully written book, and shortly after putting it down, I have quickly decided that it is instantly one of my all-time favorites. Galloway paints us a wonderful picture of what Sarajevo used to be, what it is, and what it could be again. The simple hopes and dreams of the characters make this story painfully true, even though it is, by the author’s own admission, only loosely based on actual events.
Having visited Sarajevo in 2006, I feel a connection with the city, seeing how vibrant, and alive it truly is, as it continues its recovery from the darkest period in its history. Walking the streets and being among all the history of one of the formerly great cities of Europe, makes one understand what the people there have been through, and what a struggle it has been to recover from that dark past.
Galloway has created a novel full of characters that you truly care about. Often, in books with multiple lead characters, it is often that you look forward to certain chapters over others, because you simply care about one person more than another. Cellist is not like that, because all of these people are interesting, and all of them are painfully human. This book could have been depressing, and at moments it is, but in the end it is about hope, and the past, and the uncertain future.
The Cellist of Sarajevo is so good, I have already pre-ordered Galloway’s next book, The Confabulist. I will also quickly begin delving in to his past works as well. This is a truly solid author, and he tells a story that is brilliant in its simplicity, and heart-wrenching in its depth.