Saturday, February 13, 2010

Reader's Diary #580- Steven Galloway: The Cellist of Sarajevo

Steven Galloway's The Cellist of Sarajevo centers around real life events. In the early days of the Sarajevan siege (1992-1996), a mortar attack killed 22 citizens who were standing in line waiting to buy bread. To honour those victims, for 22 days in a row, professional musician Vedran Smailovic went to the site of their death and played Albiloni's "Adagio in G Minor." Though Galloway focuses instead on three fictional characters, it was important to keep the nonfiction in mind for a couple of reasons:

1. The cellist came to represent a lot of different things to different people. To Arrow, a female sniper sent to protect the cellist (unbeknownst to him), the cellist and his seemed to be the catalyst that helped her find compassion. To Kenan, a father on his way to take a dangerous trek across the city to get water for his family, the cellist spoke of perseverance, sometimes carrying on simply for carrying on sake. And to Dragan, an older man, who stayed behind when his family left for Italy just as the fighting broke out, the cellist provided a reflection on courage. To all of these characters the cellist helped them reclaim their humanity. Though Arrow, Kenan and Dragan are fictional, it isn't too hard to believe that the cellist and his song probably did mean those things and more to the people who listened and watched him during those bleak days.

2. The Cellist of Sarajevo feels like a dystopian novel. To a Canadian reader who's never experienced anything remotely like this, scenes of people risking their lives for water and bread, running through a city that's under sniper fire, seem almost surreal. They prey on our CNN-induced phobia of a terrorist controlled future. Add to that Galloway's sparse but immediate prose, a common feature of dystopian novels and it would almost be easy to convince oneself that Galloway's novel is but a scary vision of a world to come. But it's not futuristic. For the people of Sarajevo, it is fortunately the past, for others this is the present. Trying to hold on to humanity when your basic needs are not even met is something most Canadians don't give a second thought.

The Cellist of Sarajevo is a beautifully written book. It's about the importance of symbols, about hanging on, about who we are as a species.

By the way, you can feel free to throw out the idea that this was a completely unbiased review. I knew Steven would be in town for a Northwords Writers workshop and reading, and that's why I read his book at this point in time. I can say that I truly, truly did enjoy it, but you don't have to believe me. Here's Steven and I at the Bullocks Bistro, a local joint that serves freshly caught fish.

Here he is signing the ceiling. The entire place (ceiling, walls, tables, venting ducts, etc) is filled with autographs and graffiti. It's a must-do place for any visitor.


raidergirl3 said...

Hey, he was in PEI last month!
I went to the reading, he was great. Glad you liked the book. You honed in on my feelings about it as well.

gypsysmom said...

I saw that you had this book on your upcoming reads a week or so ago. So, when I saw it in the bargain section at McNally Robinson, I had to pick it up. I immediately went to their restaurant and ordered coffee and a cinnamon bun and started reading it. However, I only read about the first 20 pages and then I had to go back to real life and all the other reading I had stacked up. Now I think I have to get back to it. Thanks for the review.

John Mutford said...

Raidergirl: Apparently he travels almost half the year.

Gypsysmom: Yes, it's a great book, but not exactly escapist fare!

Kate said...

Thank you for the review. This book has been sitting in my TBR pile for about 9 months now, but haven't managed to motivate myself to start - I think that I will in the near future now!

Sandra said...

I loved this story. Glad you did too.