“It screamed downward, splitting air and sky without effort. A target expanded in size, brought into focus by time and velocity. There was a moment before impact that was the last instant of things as the were. Then the visible world exploded.”
And so begins Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, with menace that becomes like a refrain, repeated three times in the opening chapter, though with the last we see the tense change to the present. This is not a simple recollection of the past, but the space between shelling as persistent as breathing. We are thrown into the conflict (the longest siege in modern warfare), when a cellist decides he will honour the 22 people killed by shelling while waiting for bread by playing an adiago, the same adiago, on the site for 22 days. Assuming he survives.
And with impact of the first chapter, the novel is fractured into three stories. First there is Arrow, a young female sniper who attempts to protect Sarajevo from the men in the hills, working for the government, yet choosing her own targets until she is asked to protect the cellist from enemy snipers. Second, there is Kenan, a father who must cross the wartorn city just to get water for his family. And third, we have Dragan, an older man whose family has fled, and who must face his own (all-too understandable) cowardice and the day’s menace simply to get some bread.
Galloway’s prose is clean, sharp, and sparing, as if in the face of death and destruction, each word matters. It is a book that eschews politics and comes alive in the details of daily life under siege — the practicalities of water containers, the possibility of crossing a street, or the plans for a party if the electricity came on. And it is these tiny details, rather than debates over politics or grandiose philosophizing that have justly earned Galloway praise. Of course this slender novel also grapples with issues of tremendous weight: Are hate and fear essential to survival? What is a city, a people, made of? What is left after destruction?
The cellist offers a model for the Galloway’s three characters, as each discovers their moment of rebellion — the refusal to be governed by fear. They temporarily reclaim their imprisoned city, doing something as similar as walking instead of running, despite the threat of snipers. And the victories of the citizens present hope for the city as well. While reading The Cellist of Sarajevo, I was often reminded of Anne Michaels’ The Winter Vault, of the connection between people and place and of Lucjan’s stories of Warsaw during World War II:
Cities, like people, are born with a soul, a spirit of place that continues to make itself known, emerging even after devastation, and old word looking for meaning in the new mouth that speaks it. For though there were no buildings left and there was waste farther than the horizon, Warsaw never stopped being a city.
So although the shelling seems to be the end of “things as they were,” our protagonists slowly discover that Sarajevo never stops being a city, and its citizens never stop being people, though they must struggle to discover what kind of people they want to be.
Suggested companion reading:
The Winter Vault, by Anne Michaels
Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett