Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
Published March 2009 by Penguin Group, audio January 2010 by Naxos Audiobooks
Source: my audio copy from my local library sale
Narrator: Gareth Armstrong

Publisher's Summary: 
Sarajevo, in the 1990s, is a hellish place. The ongoing war devours human life, tears families apart and transforms even banal routines, such as acquiring water, into life-threatening expeditions. Day after day, a cellist stations himself in the midst of the devastation, defying the ever-present snipers to play tributes to victims of a massacre. A true story of a cellist's resistance helps to form this pivotal event in Steven Galloway's extraordinary novel. Against this, the author touchingly describes three ordinary townspeople and their efforts to retain their humanity, sanity and autonomy as war takes hold of their lives.  

Sarajevo before the siege
My Thoughts:
The siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege of a capital city in history, longer than the siege of Stalingrad, longer than the siege of Leningrad.

Sarajevo during the siege
Family man Kenan must make the trip twice a week across the city to the city's brewery which is the only  source of fresh water. Dragan travels daily to the bakery he works at to ensure that his sister's family will have bread; it is the price he must pay to feel he can continue to seek refuge in her home now that his wife and son have fled the city. And Arrow, a young woman who has become a sniper for the besieged forces who fights hard to be allowed to work on her own terms. Both Kenan and Dragan struggle with their lack of courage, particularly in the face of the snipers they must deal with on a regular basis. Arrow struggles to avoid a blanket hatred of the men on the hills. All three fight to hold onto their own humanity, surrounded by death. The cellist's courage and the power of the music he plays allow parties on all sides to have hope.

Galloway does a fine job of bringing these three characters' struggles, and the struggles of all people living through war, to life. No fresh water, intermittent (at best) electricity, a black market that thrives while the general population starves, the inability to ever feel truly safe.

He touches only briefly on the humanity of those "men on the hill" and the horrific actions of the defending the city who use their own people in a propaganda campaign to draw attention to their plight. Some might have a problem with the book not giving a more complete look at all sides of the siege or a problem with the book not being factually accurate. I don't look to a work of fiction for the full story, I look to it for a window into a full story. And good work will, like this one did, encourage me to learn more on my own.

Vedan Smailovic
The Truth Behind The Story:
In the afterword of The Cellist of Sarajevo, Steven Galloway writes:
" At four o'clock in the afternoon on May 27, 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 honor of the dead. His actions inspired this novel."

Which isn't entirely true.

Accounts vary with the dead numbering either 16 or 22 and the time of day was morning, not afternoon. According to UN peacekeepers was not the work of Bosnian Serbs who had laid siege to the city but a "command-detonated explosion" set by the Muslims in charge in the city in an effort to to gain support for the city.

Vedran Smailovic did play at the site of the market attack but he did not play everyday there at the same time. "I am not stupid. I wasn't looking to get shot by snipers so I varied my routine." Further, Smailovic did not limit his musical protest to that particular site. He played at ruins throughout the city and a funerals which were often targeted for attack.

Steven Galloway
When Smailovic found out about Galloway's book, he was angry. Galloway initially said the cellist was not based on a particular cellist but to Smailovic, as to anyone who knows the story, it is clearly based on Smailovic. "I'm not interested in his bloody fiction. I'm interested in reality." In response to calls that Smailovic should have been compensated for the use of his story in the book, Galloway said, "I don't see how fiction writers can start paying their sources of inspiration." He added "...that's an extremely public act. I can't ignore that as an artist."

Have I mentioned before how much I love a book that makes me want to learn more? Even if I had not enjoyed this book, I would have appreciated the fact that it had me wanting to learn more about Vedran Smailovic and the siege of Sarajevo.


  1. What a fantastic book, I really liked this one! I do remember reading the afterword and being mightily impressed. But it's even better reading about the truth of the matter! I'm so glad you shared that. I'm a fact junkie ;)

  2. This book sounds REALLY good!!! I'm going to have to add it to my list!

  3. "I don't look to a work of fiction for the full story, I look to it for a window into a full story." EXACTLY!

    Great review! I will be reading this for my book club's November selection, and now I'm really looking forward to it!

  4. I got a few chapters into this one when it first came out and just wasn't hooked. I feel quite satisfied after reading your post -- and I love hearing the history behind the book, too! So thanks for filling the gap for me on this one :)