Posted in Book Reviews

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

As I found out when I came to the Afterword, this book was inspired by real events.
“At four o’clock in the afternoon on 27 May 1992, during the siege of Sarajevo, several mortar shells struck a group of people waiting to buy bread behind the market on Vase Miskina. Twenty-two people were killed and at least seventy were wounded. For the next twenty-two days Vedran Smailovic, a renowned local cellist, played Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor at the site in honour of the dead.”
And from the second paragraph of the book, “in 1945, an Italian musicologist found four bars of a sonata’s bass line in the remnants of the firebombed Dresden Music Library. He believed these notes were the work of the seventeenth-century Venetian composer Tomaso Albinoni, and spent the next twelve years reconstructing a larger piece from the charred manuscript fragment. The resulting composition, known as Albinoni’s Adagio, bears little resemblance to Albinoni’s work and is considered fraudulent by most scholars. But even those who doubt its authenticity have difficulty denying the Adagio’s beauty.”
Listen to Albinoni’s Adagio here.

Against the backdrop of the cellist playing the Adagio at 4pm every day for twenty-two days, we are introduced to three Sarajevo citizens making some kind of life for themselves in bombed out, shot at, besieged Sarajevo.
There is Arrow, a sniper, who has gone from university shooting champion to crack sniper taking aim at the men in the hills who are besieging Sarajevo. “The men in the hills” pick off Sarajevo soldiers and civilians at will and Arrow is given the task of protecting the cellist from attack by enemy sniper.
There is Kenan who lives with his wife and two children in a small apartment with no water and only intermittent electricity. After a jokey leave-taking from his wife, he leaves his apartment to travel across the city and into the hills to the old brewery to collect water in half a dozen bottles for his family and the bad-tempered neighbour downstairs. It is an undertaking that has him bent double with fear on the outside of his front door, but which he has to do every four days.
Lastly we meet Dragan. His wife and son have, he assumes, escaped safely to Italy and he is living with his sister and her husband. He is a baker, a reserved occupation and we follow him on his journey to work where even crossing a road can be a life and death affair.

I just loved this book. Beautifully written, it shows people trying to live good, decent lives in the midst of appalling circumstances. Each character is well-developed and human. I recommend it highly as a commentary on the futility of war and how easily lives can be turned upside down and morals we take for granted be something an individual has to fight hard to maintain. 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 15 years ago in a major European city.

This story will haunt you.

Interestingly, the cover of the library’s copy of the book has a photograph of 18 year old ballerina, Nina Brulic, dancing in the ruins of Sarajevo during the civil war, 1993. I’ve googled her name to get the story but didn’t come up with anything. I wonder if she did the balletic equivalent of the cellist?


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