Category Archives: Historical Fiction – Bosnia Conflict

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

Sarajevo, the Capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is a modern European city with a rich history, the home of the 1984 Olympics, not to mention the location where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was shot instigating the start of WWI. After the Soviet Union dissolved, Bosnia voted to became a separate nation, breaking off from Yugoslavia. Yet this newfound country was not without its problems with the various factions, including the Croatians, Muslims, and Serbs vying for power. Their disagreements became hostilities which led to war. This vicious conflict, whether or not one considers it a civil war, was a matter of genocide and mass graves, one found as recently as September 2017, leading the tribunal at The Hague to convict the perpetrators with a lifetime sentence for crimes against humanity.

One major battle during the Bosnian War was the Siege of Sarajevo, the longest siege in world history lasting from April 5, 1992 to February 29, 1996 – almost four years of deprivation. The forces stationed within the city were not well armed and forced to stay put by the snipers who surrounded the area. Civilians took their lives into their hands to venture outside their homes, although staying indoors was no better as shellings of mortar were commonplace, damaging over 90% of the buildings before the conflict was forced to a resolution by UN forces.

This is where The Cellist of Sarajevo begins, after a shelling in the midst of a group of people standing in line waiting for a handout of bread. Death had become commonplace to the city inhabitants, but twenty two deaths in one fell swoop was an anomaly. The dead were buried at the former stadium which had held the Olympics, now in rubble. One man felt called to respond to this tragedy, a professional musician who decided to return to the site of this mayhem for twenty two days to play his favorite piece of music, Albinioni’s Adagio, as a memorial for each of the victims. The author, Steven Galloway, has chosen to present a fictionalized version of this true event, reflecting upon the carnage of war by following the lives of three characters over a one month period. Kenan and Dragon set about their normal routines including the hardships and danger of finding water and food to sustain their families. One character, Arrow, has become an instrument of destruction using her talent as a natural shot to pick off the enemy soldiers who threaten the townsfolk. It is her task to make sure the Cellist survives and she sets about watching for a fellow sniper sent by the enemy to destroy this tiny bit of hope in a desperate situation.

This glimpse of War is frightening on many levels as through the characters eyes we witness the shamble of lives once full of joy, now reduced to survival at the most basic of levels. How could the world have allowed this to happen? And why do we continue to fight against one another in various conflicts, many also including genocide, throughout the world? These emotions are invoked by reading this short book, almost a novella, but jam packed with vivid details which will wring your heart to pieces. Five stars.

As a fotenote, the real cellist who this book was based on was angry that his actions appeared in this novel. Living in isolation, Vedran Smailovic’s deed was a private, personal one which he felt was not accurately reflected in the book. While the author interviewed many survivors of the siege to create a realistic dialogue, Galloway did not meet with Smailovic until after the book was published and only then to explain his cause. While the cellist wanted monetary compensation, the author felt this incident was in the public domain and thus fair game. Smailovic believes that the War in Bosnia should only be written about by those who had experienced it which brings us to the question, “Should an author’s writings be limited only to those events which reflect their personal experiences?” This, of course, is a ridiculous premise as whole genres would be eliminated from literature. Yet, when writing about historical events, the works should reflect an accuracy behind their words so as not to mislead the reader with a false narrative, despite the fact that the book is a fictionalized account. One must also consider point of view and interpretation, as a story from the vantage point of the army surrounded Sarajevo would have been a much different tale. Just something to think about.

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Girl at War by Sara Novic

When reading a novel, I often like to put myself in the heroine’s shoes to better experience the emotions portrayed, but when the book involves violent conflicts, I prefer to remain a neutral bystander staying partly aloof to avoid personal heartbreak. Since I was alive during the war between the Serbs and Croatians, I had an extra reason to remain detached, a feeling of guilt. After avidly watching the 1984 Winter Olympics held in Sarajevo, the idea that the world was allowing people who could easily be my next door neighbors to participate in a mass genocide greatly disturbed me. The four years of conflict from 1991-1995 was too long a period for the United States to remain effectively quiet, even if they categorized the ethnic conflict in Yugoslavia as a Civil War. Croatian American author Sara Nović brings the trauma right into our homes with her debut novel Girl at War.

Life was simple in the city of Zagreb until civil war broke out between the Serbs and the Croatians. Granted, there had always been hostilities with back and forth fighting, but then warfare came to the village. Ana Juric, at the age of ten, had to learn how to adapt to air raids and rationed meals, to blackouts and her friends’ fathers going off to war, even the observations of an occasional death. Luckily her own father was exempt from the fighting due to a crooked eye, but that didn’t mean that their lives weren’t constantly in danger. When Ana’s baby sister Rachel couldn’t fight off her progressive lung disease, despite the medicine provided by Medipact, a difficult decision was made to send the small child off to America to a foster family who could oversee her treatment. While Rachel was safe from harm, her parents were not so lucky and Ana was forced into survival mode with the help of the community at large.

Ten years later, Ana is now American, formerly adopted by her sister’s foster family. Her Croatian past is kept hidden since people don’t really want to hear about the barbarity of combat, especially after the recent calamity with NYC Twin Towers. Even her boyfriend doesn’t know the truth. Too often Ana feels numb, not allowing herself to feel lest she remember. Yet, these very memories keep calling to her and she realizes she must return to her former home in order to search out her past. Will she be able to locate her childhood friends? Will she be welcome now that so much time has passed? What will remain from before the war and what will be unrecognizable? Temporarily leaving her NYU campus life behind she travels to the village of her childhood looking for some sort of affirmation and possible closure.

Girl at War is written in four parts, with a back and forth between “present” and “past” so the reader can vicariously feel the trauma which Ana experienced as a child soldier in a war torn country. As we wonder what really happened, snippets of details are revealed which explains Ana’s predicament. The author also gives us a glimpse of the horrors of war through a child’s eyes. As Americans, it is difficult for us to imagine the threat of bombings or random shootings at civilians in the streets. In general, we are willing to recognize the atrocities of such conflicts, we simply don’t want to dig too deeply into the gritty details. It’s too painful. Which is why, although well written with a clear, relevant message, I found Girl at War extremely difficult to read. Not that it was overly graphic, the simple explanations were gruesome enough without added embellishments, it just was heart wrenching. While we are aware there is violence in this country, it’s hidden away in the inner city, rarely out in the open. That was why the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001 or the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 were so appalling, we aren’t used to “the enemy” attacking us on our home turf.

However, I do recommend this book – it’s an eye opening story which needs to be told – an event in world history which we Americans have largely ignored. Sara Novic is an excellent storyteller, despite her personal affliction of deafness. Instead of telling Ana’s tale chronologically, the plot vacillates between events and it takes a moment to figure out where in time and space the story continues. So my recommendation to the author is to provide some sort of transition when the settings change. However, perhaps the author was trying to replicate the confusion of a ten year old girl dealing with the effects of war on her world. Born in New Jersey, Sara took her own journey to Bosnia, prior to her graduation from Columbia University, where she gathered the tales of a conflict which had become a personal obsession, eventually transforming them into Ana’s staggering narrative.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for supplying an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on my blog, Gotta Read.