The Cellist of Sarajevo

At times we scarcely notice significant historical events when they occur. They fail to catch our attention, in one ear out the other as they say. The war in Bosnia and Herzegovia (between April 1992 and December 1994) and the siege of Sarajevo was a case in point for me.

Yes, I was dimly aware of the war, must have read about it in the paper, knew that NATO intervention finally brought the war to an end. But in the midst of all the other news of those days and the work I was doing, the reality of human experience simply flew right by me.

Sometimes a work of fiction can recapture what that was like and in particular what it was like for the people who struggled day after day during those years to stay alive as the shelling and sniper fire continued. Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo accomplished this for me. Instead of focusing on the political and military picture, his novel recounts the experiences of three unconnected individuals.

The fourth character, the cellist of Sarajevo, is based on the real-life musician, Verdran Smailovic, who had been the cellist of the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra before the war began. Perhaps you remember the day early in the war when a mortar shell killed twenty-two citizens of Sarajevo as they stood in line to buy bread. Smailovic witnessed their deaths and to commemorate each individual he vowed to play (Albinoni’s Adagio) in the square where they died for twenty-two consecutive days.

While this is all we learn about the cellist, Galloway’s novel unfolds the tale of three individuals who at various times come to hear him perform.

“Some days he had an audience. Other days there was so much shelling that no one in their right mind would linger in the street. It didn’t appear to make any difference to him. He always played exactly the same way.”

Arrow is a sniper who is given the task of protecting the cellist. She is far and away the most interesting character in the novel and her skills as a sniper are legendary. Dragan is a man who spends hours traveling to an old brewery to get water for his family and ungrateful neighbor. Kenan is a baker trying to cross a dangerous intersection to get to his job.

But we really learn nothing about the cellist, his motivation, and thoughts as he plays during those twenty-two straight days. Nor do we learn much about what his music brought to the people of Sarajevo? Did it bring them any sense of hope, hope that the war would end, that the city would be rebuilt, and some degree of normalcy would return?

Indeed, with the exception of Arrow, the characters seemed to me almost lifeless. Maybe that’s what war does to many of those who have to live through it. They simply give up on living.

The real drama, the real emotion of The Cellist of Sarajevo comes from Galloway’s depiction of the city, the destruction, the damage and those who didn’t make it across the intersection or were killed during a mortar attack.

It was reported that nearly 10,000 people were killed or unaccounted for, including over 1,500 children during the siege while an additional 56,000 people were wounded; half were children. Electricity was rarely available, food and water were scarce, the only thing that was plentiful was fear and the daily shelling from the hills surrounding the city. In the afterword Galloway says an average of 329 shells hit the city each day, with a one day high of 3,777. Is it any wonder there was an abundance of fear?

“Dragan knows he won’t ever be able to forget what has happened here. If the war ends, if life goes back to some semblance of how it once was, and he survives, he won’t be able to explain how any of it was possible. An explanation implies a logic, but there’s no logic to Sarajevo now.”