Book Review: The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

cellist.jpgPutting a face on the horrors of war and celebrating determination are the hallmarks of the Cellist of Sarajevo. There are actually three faces here and the book’s chapters skip from person to person to person and their individual struggles with the Bosnian war. The three main characters never meet and lead completely separate lives in Sarajevo.

Kenan is a husband and father who is stripped of the ability to work and earn a living. He now fetches fresh drinking water weekly for his family. Each treacherous journey may be his last. Dragan is an older man who has hung on to his job at a bakery and lives with his sister and her family, having sent his own family to safety in Italy. Arrow is an unlikely army recruit; a reluctant sharpshooter who chooses her own targets.

The three protagonists have one thing in common: They risk their lives to watch the cellist of Sarajevo perform Albinoni’s Adagio weekly in a public square. The sad slow piece is the cellist’s personal tribute to the 22 souls who lost their lives standing in line for bread when they came under mortar fire.

This is a fictional account of real life cellist Vedran Smailović who did actually play Albinoni’s Adagio and other classical pieces among the ruins of Sarajevo. That’s where reality ends and Galloway’s imagination takes over as he creates characters living around the unnamed cellist’s weekly performances.

Galloway writes clearly and simply with vivid details of life’s daily struggles in a city under siege but only one character really engaged me and she is Arrow. Galloway delves into her mind to explain her internal conflict with her role in the war. I wanted to know more about her. With Clint Eastwood’s movie American Sniper currently glorified in the media, Galloway’s more complicated, darker and ultimately hopeless portrait has an opposite effect.

For me, Arrow saved this book.

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