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.