Sorry for my prolonged absence here. Even though it’s uni holidays, I’ve gone off reading a bit lately. But have no fear (for those who were worried), it is coming back to me. And so this book has been sitting on my shelf for a while, and I needed something with a hook. And luckily enough, this one has a hook that has (fingers crossed) broken my dry spell.
Sarajevo in the early 1990s is not a happy place. Besieged on all sides, the residents of the city are forced to scamper around the streets, in constant fear that you will be shot by a sniper. In all this, though, one musician offers hope. His music will inspire three people to think about the way they think about what is going on around them. Three people for whom living in this city has become not just become a way of life, but a fight for survival every day.
It’s interesting that a Canadian writer should write this, and not a Bosnian. There is such evocation of the city of Sarajevo, that you really feel engrossed in a city under siege. Galloway has a slight tendency to show off his local knowledge, with constant listing of streets and intersections, but for the most part, his portrayal of Sarajevo itself is perfectly done. What makes this even more impressive, also, is his evocation of a city at war with itself. There’s a lot of description of the actions of war itself – from how a sniper chooses her target, to how one can hear a shell coming towards you – and the effect of this is a little disturbing, to be honest. The Cellist of Sarajevo is not a pleasant novel to read. It’s actually quite confronting to think of these people as real, and there are one or two passages that really hit home, and terrify you as a reader. Trying to empathise with these three characters is difficult – you want to, because their situation is so dire, but if you do, you face the risk of feeling thoroughly sad for the next little while. That, and I think most of us have no idea what it is to live in a war zone.
Who are these characters, then, that fill us with sympathy and dread at the same time? There is a sniper, who goes by the name Arrow. Her journey is most unique in this novel – she is called in to protect the cellist, the musician who is bringing hope to the city. Kenan is a man simply trying to get some water for his family to survive, and Dragan is going to work in a bakery. The latter two narrative strands read almost as short stories broken up into small pieces, and while there are certain similarities, there are enough differences between the two journeys, and indeed characters, to realise they both offer something different. Kenan’s young family is still living in Sarajevo, and they are tired. Tired of the war, tired of the fighting, tired of living. Dragan’s family has escaped into Italy, but he has stayed, for reasons not even he can understand. These two people are nothing special, but their job as everyman in the novel forces home the novel’s mission – to bring war to the people, to show us the way people live and change in war. It’s very, very well done.
I don’t read a lot of war novels, I don’t think. But this one is a little bit fantastic. By not having the cellist as the main character or focus, but simply by having him as a set point in time and space, there is more room for Galloway to breathe. He doesn’t have to provide the cellist with a reason for doing this (very smart), and he can create three characters who react to him. Very sensible, that. There’s such a sense of resignation, of despair that runs through the whole thing, and yet, the end provides hope. And it is the cellist who provides it – something that not even the characters believe can happen. Perhaps, then, this is not a war novel. Perhaps this is a novel about music.