Review

The Cellist of Sarajevo

by Steven Galloway

Reading THE CELLIST OF SARAJEVO isn’t quite like
remembering where you were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated,
or when the FLQ crisis briefly gripped Canada in martial law, or
when the horror of 9/11 stopped the whole world in its tracks. But
for a nanosecond of history back in 1992, news cameras captured the
bizarre and poignant scene of a cellist, attired in full concert
dress, playing alone amid the ruins of Sarajevo.

For 22 improbable days --- accompanied by background shellfire,
dangerously close sniper bullets and an increasingly sympathetic
global following --- real-life professional musician Vedran
Smailovic appeared each afternoon and played his cello near the
ruins of what had once been one of the city’s few operating
bakeries. On May 27, 1992, a bomb launched from the hills outside
Sarajevo had landed amid a line of hungry men, women and children
waiting to buy bread; 22 of them were killed instantly, many more
were wounded.  

The world was hardly unaware that this once beautiful and
elegant capital of the former Yugoslavia and gracious Olympic
showpiece was under siege and would be for more than half of that
terrible decade --- fractured irreparably along ethnic, religious
and political lines that have not healed to this day. But much of
the world chose to ignore the turmoil of Eastern Europe, treating
it as just another vaguely annoying Balkan spat instead of the
up-close and devastating human tragedy it really was.

As one of the 20th century’s most improbable heroes,
Vedran Smailovic helped to re-focus global consciousness on the
true cost of war. That’s why the image of his lonely figure
outlined against broken buildings makes such an indelible imprint
on the psyche. And that’s also why Canadian author Steven
Galloway prefaces his emphatically fictional account behind that
compelling 1992 news photo by telling readers that THE CELLIST OF
SARAJEVO would not mention Bosnians, Muslims, Serbs, Christians,
the UN, or portray any actual individual.

Instead, Galloway draws rough, ragged and intentionally
incomplete sketches of ordinary people caught up in the
cellist’s musical elegy, drawn in various ways to the
hauntingly beautiful melodies that briefly overcome the rasp and
scream of weapons fire. His spare strokes create layers of feeling
and imagery against the gray background of the city, alighting by
turns on a young father making a long weekly trek for water, a
lonely senior citizen whose family has escaped to Italy, or a young
woman who survives as a virtuoso sniper. Along with them we meet a
series of peripheral, almost ghostly characters that intersect
haphazardly with their lives, each person’s existence and
perceptions completely reconfigured by the necessities of war.

During those few short weeks when word of the cellist’s
amazing feat of musical defiance spreads from one devastated
Sarajevo neighborhood to another, people are drawn into a strange
solidarity. Meeting at street corners, food queues or water hoses,
they tell one another that the cellist has survived one more day
without being shot or captured.

Galloway says least of all about the cellist himself, beyond the
sparse identification that places him near the spot where the fatal
bomb decimated his neighborhood. Keeping a respectful distance
throughout the book, he nevertheless creates an intimate and moving
portrait of collective grief and agony, conveyed almost entirely
through incidental people who pass within the sight and sound of
the cello’s lament.

It’s a doubly painful irony, however, that the subtly
delineated title character of Galloway’s story should have
evoked a bitter response from the “real” cellist of
Sarajevo. Vedran Smailovic (now living in Ireland) briefly became a
1990s cause celebre, featured in a number of international
arts-for-peace projects. Today, he condemns THE CELLIST OF SARAJEVO
as an exploitive appropriation of his identity, rather than the
profound meditation on the ravages of war that it was intended to
be --- and actually is.

But as we all know too well in our conflicted world, the psychic
“collateral damage” of war runs even deeper than its
material and physical wounds. For so many in the former Yugoslavia
and in the battered jewel that was once Sarajevo, the healing has
yet to begin.

That’s why both Vedran Smailovic and Steven Galloway did
what they did --- and why it is not a vain hope that they may one
day share artistic agreement in defiance of war and injustice.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch (paulinefinch@rogers.com) on December 26, 2010

The Cellist of Sarajevo
by Steven Galloway

  • Publication Date: May 15, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover
  • ISBN-10: 1594489866
  • ISBN-13: 9781594489860