Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Cellist of Sarajevo

This is my second book in the 2nd Canadian Book Challenge, qualifying because although it is set in Europe, the book was written by a Canadian author. Steven Galloway is a new author to me, exactly what I was hoping to find by taking part in this challenge, and he is one I'll be keeping an eye on for a long time.

It is simply hard to imagine daily life in Sarajevo during the fighting there between Serb and Yugoslav soldiers, a time when anyone was considered a legitimate target for the daily sniper and mortar fire that targeted the city. But Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo makes it a little easier to understand what it must have been like for those who did not escape before it was too late for them to get out.

The Cellist of Sarajevo is based on a real event that occurred in Sarajevo in 1992 after twenty-two of its citizens were killed in a brutal mortar attack while standing in line for bread. Vedran Smailovic, a professional musician, decided to honor those who died that day by playing his cello for twenty-two consecutive days at the site of the massacre, one day in honor of each of those who died.

Galloway uses that act of immense courage as the centerpiece of his story, a story he tells through the eyes of four people who never actually meet on the dangerous streets of the city. In addition to the cellist, there are alternating segments about a female sniper named Arrow and two men who must negotiate the dangerous bridges and intersections of Sarajevo in order to find the food and water necessary for their survival.

The young sniper, a former university student who shed her given name and christened herself Arrow when she began her new life as a sniper, is assigned the near-impossible task of protecting the cellist from enemy sniper fire during his daily street performance. She is a soldier with a conscience, so determined that she will target only enemy combatants that she eventually places her own life in jeopardy by refusing to kill a civilian she is ordered to shoot.

Kenan, father of two young children, makes a regular trek to the local brewery in order to gather the water supply that his wife and children so desperately need for their survival. It is not a short walk and he knows that one of the snipers hidden in the hills that surround the city could choose him as a random target at any moment. But he returns to the brewery every few days.

Dagnan is a baker who has to make his way across the city each day to get to his job, where he is paid in the bread that he helps to bake, bread upon which he depends for his survival and for its use as a currency he can barter for his other needs. Dagnan, who managed to convince his wife and son to leave the city before the siege made it impossible for others to escape, has cut himself from everyone he knew before the war, something he comes to regret.

The Cellist of Sarajevo explores what happens to people when they are faced with the possibility of sudden death on a daily basis, when their government can do very little to protect or help them, when their days have to be spent in search of the things they need to stay alive for another week. Will they be able to retain their humanity and charitable instincts to help those in worse shape, or who are weaker than themselves, or will they allow their society to become one of every man for himself? What are they willing to do to keep themselves and their families alive?

Steven Galloway has written a book that will leave his readers wondering exactly that about themselves.

Rated at: 5.0

12 comments:

  1. Ah, great book and one that will undoubtedly make my top 10 for 2008 list. I loved this book - so beautifully written!

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  2. I've heard a lot of good press about this book. I'd never heard of Galloway before it.

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  3. I've never heard of this book before, but it sounds great. Even though it's depressing, I like to read about how people cope during difficult times. I haven't signed up for the Canadian Challenge because I'm terrible at completing challenges. But, I really need to read more by Canadian authors. Maybe I'll give it a try. Thanks for the great review!

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  4. That must be the cellist who is playing in that very moving photographing amidst the rubbel in Sarajevo - does the book reference it? Sounds like a wonderful book!

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  5. Wendy, it will very likely make the Top 15 list that I make for myself at the end of every year. I really enjoyed it.

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  6. John, he may be an author to keep an eye on...although I don't think that he's done much yet in the way of novels.

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  7. Lisa, it's an intriguing book, to say the least...really makes you wonder "what if."

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  8. Ted, that's exactly the fellow it was based upon. From what I understand he was not at all happy when he found out that his experience had become part of a novel, however. The author readily references the fact that the man was his inspiration for the book.

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  9. It is, indeed, a good one, Jenclair. I think you'd enjoy it.

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  10. It would seem to be flattering to me.

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  11. Same to me, Ted, but for some reason the fellow didn't take kindly to his story being used in a novel. Perhaps the memories of the time are too painful and he had to field some questions/inquiries from the media. I've been looking for more detail about his reaction but haven't found it yet...what I saw was part of another book review, in fact.

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