The Cellist of Sarajevo. By Steven Galloway.
New York: Riverhead Books, 2008. 235 pages.
Music is something as close to absolute value as one might get amid
the horror of the prolonged siege of Sarajevo. The cellist who chose
the exact site of murderous explosions to commemorate twenty-two deaths,
by playing Albinoni's Adagio for twenty-two days, valued music more than
his own life. His enormously courageous action represented an affirmation
of the value of civilized activity in the face of an enormous assault
on civilization itself.
This short novel was inspired by that historical fact. The rest is
fiction, but supported by so many hours of interviews with survivors of
the siege that the reader marvels at the ability of the author to place
himself in the minds of his characters in this situation. No mention
is made of the ethnicities of the participants in these events, though
those who rained destruction from the hills, sniping at civilians at
random, and burning a million volume library, are flatly identified as
There are three main characters in the narrative, not counting the cellist
who, after the opening chapter is simply there. Their actions are given
discrete chapters and do not directly interact. The cellist is heroic.
So is a young woman who calls herself Arrow, because she has taken on
an identity and a role she does not want associated, even in her own
mind, with the things she has to do. She has been a university student
and has been persuaded to become a sniper - and protector of the cellist
- because of the expert marksmanship she had learned as sport. There
are limits to what she is willing to do. She, and the military officer
she works with, strive to uphold the norms of civilized behavior while
engaged in armed defense.
The lives of the other two main characters have been reduced to fetching
water and providing bread, respectively. This is at great personal risk,
but neither would consider himself courageous, though each endures great
danger and witnesses great horrors. It is not easy to read about what
they go through and, in fact, this novel might well have been written
as a novella involving just Arrow and the cellist. But as it stands,
this slight book can arguably be considered great.
Copyright 2009 by R. James Tobin
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