Monday, 12 May 2014

Book Review - The Cellist of Sarajevo

A week or so ago, I was returning books to the library with the knowledge that I currently had nothing to read. After making the return I wandered over to a shelf that featured favorite picks and found The Cellist of Sarajevo among them. Knowing that it had been on the long list for a Giller Prize, I picked it up and brought it home.

This brilliant novel with universal resonance tells the story of three people trying to survive in a city rife with the extreme fear of desperate times, and of the sorrowing cellist who plays undaunted in their midst. 

One day a shell lands in a bread line and kills twenty-two people as the cellist watches from a window in his flat. He vows to sit in the hollow where the mortar fell and play Albinoni’s Adagio once a day for each of the twenty-two victims. The Adagio had been re-created from a fragment after the only extant score was firebombed in the Dresden Music Library, but the fact that it had been rebuilt by a different composer into something new and worthwhile gives the cellist hope. 

Meanwhile, Kenan steels himself for his weekly walk through the dangerous streets to collect water for his family on the other side of town, and Dragan, a man Kenan doesn’t know, tries to make his way towards the source of the free meal he knows is waiting. Both men are almost paralyzed with fear, uncertain when the next shot will land on the bridges or streets they must cross, unwilling to talk to their old friends of what life was once like before divisions were unleashed on their city. Then there is “Arrow,” the pseudonymous name of a gifted female sniper, who is asked to protect the cellist from a hidden shooter who is out to kill him as he plays his memorial to the victims.

Wow! What a powerful story. Even though most of the story is bleak, tracking the lives of four people who seemed to have lost their souls and maybe even their humanity, it was a book that I could not put down. I became very involved with each character and their plight and wondered how I would fair under those same conditions.

This is very much a human story. The insight the author Steven Galloway gives into everyday people, not knowing each day whether they would live or die at the hands of "the men in the hills" is rather soul crushing, but these people live on.

The book was inspired by a real event. During the siege of Sarajevo in May of 1992, mortar shells fell on people in breadline killing twenty two and wounding more than seventy. For the next twenty two days a local cellist, Vedran Smailovic would go to the site and play Albinoni's Adagio in G minor, in honour of the dead.

A fabulous book, one that I normally would not read  but am so glad that I did! Here is Albinoni's Adagio in G minor.

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