Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Haunting Novel

The Cellist of Sarajevo
by Steven Galloway

Steven Galloway's spare novel The Cellist of Sarajevo will be haunting me for a long time. I honestly couldn't tell you when a work of fiction made me stop and think so hard about the world we live in.

As the novels opens, the siege of Sarajevo is underway, and 22 innocent civilians have just died from a shelling attack while they were waiting in line to buy bread. The eponymous cellist watched it all from his window. They were his friends and neighbors. For reasons never explained (and without need of explanation) the unnamed cellist decides he will play an adagio on the spot of the attack for the next 22 days.

This small gesture of beauty in the midst of senseless violence and horror makes the man a target. The attackers of the city, described only as "the men on the hill" will want to make a lesson of him--though exactly what that lesson is I'm not sure. The military men defending the city want the cellist protected. They assign that job to the second of four central characters the novel revolves around. She is a sniper, going only by the name Arrow. She was once a happy student at the University, but now she is a weapon in human form. Every day she struggles with her personal moral compass.

The third character is Kenan, a mild-mannered husband and father. The gauntlet he runs every few days is the long trek across town to collect fresh water for his family. No one is Sarajevo is safe. Every time they step outside, they are facing death (although staying inside is no safer with buildings being bombed daily). Kenan's terror at leaving home is echoed by the fourth character, Dagnan, a baker on the way to work who is literally paralyzed by the prospect of crossing the street. If he crosses the street, will he be shot? If he doesn't cross the street, how will he eat?

The characters in this novel are living in a world gone mad. And it wasn't decades ago. It wasn't a third world country. It was barely a 12 years ago in a major European city. I was a young adult at the time, largely ignoring the news. Reading this (mercifully) short, profoundly moving story sent me to the history books trying to understand what this conflict was about. I still don't understand. But this novel gave me a new comprehension of what war really means. Galloway brought war into a world very familiar to me. It kept me awake at night. This is a novel that should be read by all thinking people.
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