The Cellist of Sarajevo
Steven Galloway, 2008
Penguin Group USA
This brilliant novel with universal resonance tells the story of three people trying to survive in a city rife with the extreme fear of desperate times, and of the sorrowing cellist who plays undaunted in their midst.
One day a shell lands in a bread line and kills twenty-two people as the cellist watches from a window in his flat. He vows to sit in the hollow where the mortar fell and play Albinoni’s Adagio once a day for each of the twenty-two victims. The Adagio had been re-created from a fragment after the only extant score was firebombed in the Dresden Music Library, but the fact that it had been rebuilt by a different composer into something new and worthwhile gives the cellist hope.
Meanwhile, Kenan steels himself for his weekly walk through the dangerous streets to collect water for his family on the other side of town, and Dragan, a man Kenan doesn’t know, tries to make his way towards the source of the free meal he knows is waiting. Both men are almost paralyzed with fear, uncertain when the next shot will land on the bridges or streets they must cross, unwilling to talk to their old friends of what life was once like before divisions were unleashed on their city. Then there is “Arrow,” the pseudonymous name of a gifted female sniper, who is asked to protect the cellist from a hidden shooter who is out to kill him as he plays his memorial to the victims.
In this beautiful and unforgettable novel, Steven Galloway has taken an extraordinary, imaginative leap to create a story that speaks powerfully to the dignity and generosity of the human spirit under extraordinary duress. (From the publisher.)
- Birth—July, 1975
- Where—Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
- Education—University of College of the Cariboo; University of British Columbia
- Currently—New Westminster, British ColumbiaSteven Galloway, a Canadian author, was born in Vancouver and raised in Kamloops, both in British Columbia. He attended the University College of the Cariboo and the University of British Columbia. His debut novel, Finnie Walsh (2000), was nominated for the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award. His second novel, Ascension (2003), was nominated for the BC Book Prizes’ Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and has been translated into numerous languages.
His third novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo (2008), was heralded as “the work of an expert” by the Guardian, and has become an international bestseller and sold in 20 countries. Galloway has taught creative writing at the University of British Columbia and taught and mentored creative writing in The Writer’s Studio, at the writing and publishing program at Simon Fraser University. (From Wikipedia.)
In this elegiac novel inspired by an actual event during the siege of Sarajevo in 1992, Steven Galloway explores the brutality of war and the redemptive power of music. Crafted with unforgettable imagery and heartbreaking simplicity, his small book speaks forcefully to the triumph of the spirit in the face of overwhelming despair.
Canadian Galloway delivers a tense and haunting novel following four people trying to survive war-torn Sarajevo. After a mortar attack kills 22 people waiting in line to buy bread, an unnamed cellist vows to play at the point of impact for 22 days. Meanwhile, Arrow, a young woman sniper, picks off soldiers; Kenan makes a dangerous trek to get water for his family; and Dragan, who sent his wife and son out of the city at the start of the war, works at a bakery and trades bread in exchange for shelter. Arrow’s assigned to protect the cellist, but when she’s eventually ordered to commit a different kind of killing, she must decide who she is and why she kills. Dragan believes he can protect himself through isolation, but that changes when he runs into a friend of his wife’s attempting to cross a street targeted by snipers. Kenan is repeatedly challenged by his fear and a cantankerous neighbor. All the while, the cellist continues to play. With wonderfully drawn characters and a stripped-down narrative, Galloway brings to life a distant conflict.
A bread line in besieged Sarajevo. A mortar lobbed by Serb soldiers on the hill. Death for 22 people. A cellist sees it all and determines to honor the dead-and perhaps assuage his own pain-by playing Albinoni’s Adagio on the spot for 22 days. And so Galloway opens his first novel, inspired by true events, weaving together four lives to tell the awful story of Sarajevo’s devastation. Aside from the cellist, there’s Kenan, who risks his life every few days to carry plastic canisters to the brewery and retrieve water for his family. Dragan, who got his family out before the bombs started falling, works at the bakery for, literally, his daily bread. Both must cower on street corners and watch those who risk crossing get shot or killed. Arrow, who uses an alias, is a sniper desperate to defend her city and just as desperate not to compromise her humanity by hating the men who rain death down on the city. In the end, each takes a stand, small or large, to assure that the “Sarajevo that [they want] to live is alive again.” Galloway writes simply and affectingly, occasionally resorting to cliché and just as often hitting a sweet, clear note that makes the siege of Sarajevo very real.
Inspired by Vedran Smailovic, the cellist who, in 1992, played in a bombed-out Sarajevo square for 22 days in memory of the 22 people who were killed by a mortar attack, this is a novel about four people trying to maintain a semblance of their humanity in the besieged city…. [Galloway] effectively creates a fifth character in the city itself, capturing the details among the rubble and destruction that give added weight to his memorable novel. —Elliot Mandel
Four people struggle to stay alive in war-torn Sarajevo, remembering the simple pleasures of their old routines as they settle into horrifying, desperate new ones. On a day during the brutal siege of Sarajevo—an occupation that ultimately lasted years and claimed tens of thousands of lives-a mortar attack kills 22 people waiting for bread as a once famous cellist watches from his window. In tribute, he decides to play his cello in the street for 22 days, which will likely get him killed, given the hordes of snipers waiting in the hills above the city. But Arrow, an angry young female sniper, is cryptically assigned to protect him. As she stalks his potential killers, she begins to confront her own rationale for murder. Meanwhile, two ordinary citizens try to survive another day in the hell that Sarajevo has become. Kenan, a young father, traverses the ravaged city in search of water for his family and, as a favor, for a neighbor. The only safe haven for clean drinking water is a brewery across town, and the trek is both difficult and dangerous. On the journey, Kenan passes the tragic remains of his old life, including the office building, now burnt down, where he used to work and the park, now unsafe, where he used to spend time with a friend. Meanwhile, Dragan, a middle-aged baker, runs into an old acquaintance as he goes searching for bread. The two literally dodge bullets as they make their way through the streets. As violence rages in a city whose vibrance now lives only in the memories of its dying residents, the cellist continues his beautiful act of defiance, playing on through the bullets. Indelible imagery and heartbreaking characters give authority to this chilling story and make human a crisis typically overlooked in literature.
What effect does the constant confrontation of war and occupation have on each narrator? Does suffering, violence and loss ever become normalized for them? What is it like to live in this kind of anarchy—especially when symbols of peace and power have been extinguished (the eternal flame from WWII, the Kosovo Olympic stadium now used as a burial ground)? And what does it mean to have the color, beauty, and vibrancy of music and flowers (left behind for the cellist) introduced?
How has life changed in the city since the arrival of the men on the hills? What resources, both physical and mental, are the four characters in the book using to help them survive? What is involved in day-to-day living? How would you fare under these same conditions—and what would be your greatest challenges?
Each chapter in the novel is told through the lens of one of the four main characters (including the cellist) in the story. How does this strategy color our reading? How might our experience be different if told in first person? If it were told in a more journalistic way?
How do each of the narrators (Arrow, Dragan, Kenan) view their fellow citizens? How do they each look upon their struggles, choices, and their attitudes? What makes them not give up on each other? Does Kenan’s classification of the “three types of people” (144) ring true to you?
Do you think the author intends for the reader to be sympathetic to Arrow’s life and career trajectory? What prevents (or encourages) us from fully engaging, trusting, relating to her? Do you think war forces everyone to compromise something in themselves—their attitude, their moral compass?
What are the goals of “the men on the hill”? What exactly is it they are trying to destroy? What do they come to represent for the main characters—and what separates them from Arrow?
In the beginning of the novel, Dragan is said to avoid his friends and coworkers because “the destruction of the living is too much for him,” Arrow assumes a new name to distance herself from her role as a sniper, and Kenan takes refuge in his new ritual of obtaining water for his family. How have the three used rituals as ways to cope with their fear of what is happening in the city? At the end of the book, do you feel that their experiences of the cellist’s performances have changed how they deal with the danger around them? In what way?
What force does music have upon the war torn state—and what powers does it have over the lives of the characters? (For Kenan, Arrow, and Dragan? For the cellist himself?) Do you find yourself relating to the power of the cellist’s performances? Are there parallel moments in your life where you also experienced such sudden awakening, or realization?
“Sarajevo was a great city for walking.” How does the mapping of the landscape—the physical and psychic layout of the city—affect the narrative? How does our intimacy with this map affect our experience of the story?
In one of his early chapters, Kenan is particularly disturbed by the interruption and shelled state of the tram’s service (“The war will not be over until the trams run again”) and the destruction of the National Library (“the most visible manifestation of a society he was proud of”)—representing for him basic civilization. What signs, services, and signals do you consider pillars of civilization?
Why do you think the sniper avoids taking his shot at the cellist—especially when he has such ample opportunity?
Why does Dragan take such drastic measures to prevent the dead man’s body from being filmed by the journalist? What does the author suggest through this as a lesson for the living? What are we to do to prevent the horror of war from becoming commonplace, something to tune our televisions out from?
Were you surprised by Arrow’s final act of protest? Do you think she was ultimately able to reclaim herself, her identity? Do you think she succeeded? (Questions issued by publisher.)