The Cellist of Sarajevo – Steven Galloway

In My Unhelpful Opinion – A Shitty Book Review

Oh this book. This beautiful, powerfully sad, enlightening book. Based on the actual Siege of Sarajevo from 1992-1996, and the cellist that played tribute to 22 people who lost their lives trying to buy some bread. This book follows three different characters Arrow, Dragan and Kenan. Arrow is a soldier, an expert sniper, who unlike her fellow comrades and enemies does not shoot who she deems the innocent. She has her own moral code and is insistent on keeping it. Dragan, is older man whose wife and son escaped the city without hom. He works in a bakery which, for the most part has kept him from being enlisted in the war effort. Kenan is a father and husband. He is weighed down by his responsibility to keep his family alive as well as keeping old promises to a neighbour who refuses to simply change to water bottles with handles.

This book is one of those rare finds that can make you feel a deep sadness. The sadness fills you up to the brim and just consumes you fully. Like most well written works of fiction, it has to be true enough that the reader can picture the narrative being plausible. Dragan and Kenan’s storylines and characters are mundane enough that you can picture an average person going through the motions and thoughts that they do. Dragan is simply trying to get to work. To do so, he has to cross a street. But this everyday act is hindered by snipers killing whoever they feel like. Kegan has to get water for his family and neighbour so that they can cook, drink and wash. Seemingly simple aspects of your life, that in their reality, can get them killed. Arrow on the other hand, is the type of soldier that you hope exists. She has her own moral code that dictates who can live and who can die. But that code was created for her because of the “us versus them” mentality that exists.

While I was listening to the audio book The Cellist of Sarajevo. There was a moment when Dragan is waiting to cross the street. The Men on The Hills are sniping the area and it is too dangerous to cross the road. Another man had tried and paid with his life. Dragan noticed that there was a camera crew waiting to film the people trying to cross the road. It is here that he discovers that dead bodies do not make the news. It is people surviving, taking a stand and facing impossible odds that make people want to help.

A couple weeks ago this image began circulating the internet. As a testament to how powerful the picture of that little boy was, it came in the midst of the 2016 Rio Olympics, when the entire world has their attention focused on our best athletes competing against one another rather than world events. The war in Syria is still an ongoing event. We here in Canada and the United States have the privilege of being so, so separated from war. This is the type of picture that reminds us that there are certain injustices in the world that we have no possible way of empathizing with. Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the horrors of the Vietnam War are all images that depict bravery, freedom or the horrors. The picture of that poor little Syrian boy falls heavily into this category with the reminder that the Syrian War is still destroying lives on a daily basis.

Even though the setting of this book is takes place about 20 years ago, the way that Galloway writes it, you can essentially substitute any war for it, with the exception of the cellist’s story line. It touches on love, promises, the meaning of life, the difference between living and surviving, friendships, family, the politics of war, morality towards people’s mortality, hatred, self-reflection in times of hardship and peace, bravery compared with cowardice, sorrow and happiness. In short, it is a book that makes you feel and think about a lot of things in a different light that you might otherwise would not of.

My Goodreads Review

This book was recommended to me by my friend and I’m so happy that she did. Books that are based on true events but depict the story from a fictional lens are always so chilling because there is that grain of truth that each character holds in them. A father who cannot let his children see that he is a coward; an older gentleman protected from enlistment partly due to his age, partly from his occupation at the bakery; an expert marksman who refuses to reveal her true name because this version of herself is not permanent nor her true self; and finally the cellist who plays for 22 days as a tribute to those poor individuals who only wanted a piece of bread, but instead lost their lives.

A truly touching novel that speaks of the hardships of war and how those who live through it on a daily basis, manage it.


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