The seventh day of my Book Advent Calendar brings us to “G” and I’m recommending Steven Galloway's third novel which was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and longlisted for the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Day Seven: The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
The novel is set in Sarjevo in the early 1990s during the longest siege in modern history (almost 4 years). It was inspired by the true story of Vedran Smailović who played his cello every afternoon for 22 days on the spot where 22 people were killed by a bomb while queuing in a bread line.
The book is a set of sketches of ordinary people: a young father making a long, weekly trek for water, a lonely senior citizen whose family escaped to Italy, and a young woman who has become a sniper. No ethnic or religious identifiers are given. The main characters are simply referred to as Sarajevans and their common enemy described only as “the men in the hills.”
Obviously, the book is about the effects of war on human beings. They all lose some of their humanity amidst the struggle to get bread and water and not to die. Before the end of the novel, all three characters have to decide whether they will allow the war to make decisions for them or they will do what is right even if it means they will not survive. The reader is certainly left to wonder what he/she would do if faced with similar circumstances.
The novel also explores the role of art in the face of violence. The author’s answer seems to be that art can reconnect us with humanity. The cellist’s music “wouldn’t bring anyone back from the dead, wouldn’t feed anyone, wouldn’t replace one brick,” yet it has redemptive power because it can help heal a battered city, mentally if not physically.
At the end, one is left feeling the triumph of the human spirit in the face of atrocity and despair.