The Cellist of Sarajevo
By Steven Galloway
Read June 2020
The cellist of Sarajevo really existed. He was playing his cello when twenty-two people lost their lives in a bombing outside his window while waiting in line for bread during the siege of Sarajevo. He really played that song each of twenty-two days in a row in their memory. This book uses three voices to describe fictional people living in Sarajevo during those twenty-two days.
Arrow learned marksmanship in school and shot in competitions with her teammates. She had been pressed into service to kill snipers lurking in the hills who were killing residents while they went about their daily business. During the time of this story she has been assigned to kill the sniper sent to silence the cellist. We hear what she is thinking and feeling during this time. Her voice is the clearest and most distinct of the three. We are left, as was she, with the question—is she really different from the snipers in the hills?
We listen to Keenan’s thoughts as he ventures into the streets to collect water for his family and neighbor from one of the few water sources left in the city. He doesn’t want to expose anyone else in his family to potential death by sniper during these treks but also doesn’t know what would happen to them if he is shot.
Finally we listen to the thoughts of Dragon, a baker who has lived in the city all his life and is mourning the loss of the majesty of the buildings and the vitality of its people. His family is no longer in the city—he has sent them away for safe keeping. He too ventures into the streets to collect food and water.
The voices of Keen and Dragon are less distinct from each other compared with the voice of Arrow. They recount their terror when worrying about whether it is safe to leave the safety of buildings and barricades to cross the street when needed. They recount the various buildings that have been lost during this endless struggle.
There is no discussion regarding the parties engaged in battle nor the reasons for the siege. The book is solely focused on these three people as representatives of those whose lives are in a sort of suspended animation as their city and its people are being slowly destroyed.
The book is mercifully short (235 pages) as each page describes the endless dreadful state of being for the three characters. This reader read a Kindle version so the extent of progress in the book wasn’t as obvious as when reading a hardcopy. At one point, this reader wondered if the book would ever end as the relentlessness of destruction and sense of doom was almost overwhelming. Fortunately this reader did eventually break out of this feeling, did experience the ability of the characters to persevere, and did appreciate the author’s ability to show both endurance of the spirit and the enormity of what Sarajevo citizens endured.