The Cellist of Sarajevo

20 July 2014
Written by Diana Kenny
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Diana reviews The Cellist of Sarajevo, a book that follows the lives of three fictional citizens of Sarajevo as they struggle to survive in the war-torn city


The Cellist of Sarajevo  by Steven Galloway

How to describe a book set in 1992 about the Siege of Sarajevo, the longest siege in modern warfare - 1425 days, a year longer than the Siege of Leningrad and three times longer than the Siege of Stalingrad? I will start by quoting the author of his inspirational source;

“At four o’clock in the afternoon of 27th May ,1992, during the siege of Sarajevo, several mortar shells struck a group of people waiting to buy bread behind the market on Vase Miskina.  Twenty -wo people were killed and at least seventy were wounded.  For the next twenty-two days Vedran Smailovic, a renowned local cellist, played Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor at the site in honour of the dead.”

Galloway describes the siege through the eyes of three inhabitants of the war-torn city: 

- Dragan, a 62-year-old who has a coveted job in a bakery.  He is seldom paid in cash but, as he is living with his sister and her husband, the food is very welcome payment for kind.  He has sent his wife and son to Italy before the hostilities began.

- Kenan, a middle-aged man who risks his life every four days to get water for his wife, two children and an elderly neighbour.

- And Arrow, based on a real person - a woman sniper Galloway heard interviewed on Radio Denmark - although his Arrow is his own invention. Arrow was a member of her university’s target-shooting team. Four months after the war began she was called up but managed to arrange things in her own way.  She would choose her own targets, would not kill civilians and she would work for only one person. In June 1992 she is asked to protect the cellist from the Serb sniper sent to kill him.

And that is it, the novel condensed, but the City of Sarajevo as seen through the eyes of the three is also a character.  The systematic destruction of the city by the men on the hill, the Serbian army, as seen through the eyes of the male characters in particular is very poignant.  The language is sparse, matter of fact, but captures the essence of the situation.  

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Yugoslavia, ruled by Tito, was a country of six states, each with very religious populations; Eastern Orthodox Serbs, Roman Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks.  It was a situation bound to bring trouble; in 1992 Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence and in an attempt to create a new Bosnian Serb state the Serbian army encircled Sarajevo from the surrounding hills and assaulted the city.

The once cultured city, Sarajevo, was reduced to nothingness, all public amenities flattened, public transport non-existent, including the much-loved trams, and the inhabitants were compelled to sidle along the streets in fear, waiting to see if the snipers were at work in the “sniper alleys”. The only way open to the outside world was the Sarajevo Tunnel through which arms and black-market food were smuggled. Dragan observes that some people thrive in any circumstances and fantasises about walking through it to safety. 

In their own way each character comes to terms with their frailties and the men, although thinking of themselves as cowards, do the right thing.  Arrow has her own code of conduct and stays true to herself. The bravery of the cellist is an inspiration to the city as people gather and lay flowers at his feet. Humanity endures even in such circumstances.

I vividly remember this time and only because of a remark made by an acquaintance. Seeing on the TV news the men, women and children squashed into buses hoping to escape, she decried that they weren’t refugees because they were “too well dressed”.  God forgive that we should be so short-sighted as to think that refugees come dressed only in rags!

To reproduce the quote from Leon Trotsky at the beginning of the novel;
“You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you."



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