Review – The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

cellist“She felt an enveloping happiness to be alive, a joy made stronger by the certainty that someday it would all come to an end….  She realized that for no particular reason she stumbled on the core of what it meant to be human.  It’s a rare gift to understand that your life is wondrous and that it won’t last forever.”  (page 5)

The Cellist of Sarajevo begins with a tragedy – 22 people are killed in a bombing in Sarajevo as a member of the symphony, defunct since the conflict began, watches from his window as he practices the cello.  The cellist decides that, in honor of the dead – his neighbors and friends – he will play Abandoni’s Adagio on the cello every day at 4 o’clock for 22 days.  But this is not the cellist’s story.  It is the story of three characters, Arrow, Dragan and Kenan.  Arrow is a talented sniper who regularly finds herself questioning her position in the war and the actions of those around her.  Dragan is an elderly man who is on his way to gather bread for his family at the bakery where he works.   Kenan is dangerously crossing the city to gather water for his family and his neighbor.

This is a beautiful, haunting novel.  Galloway describes the events of the seige of Sarajevo as if he were there, as they were first hand experiences, not acquired through meticulous research and interviews.  Galloway is a master storyteller and I was continuously impressed by his impressive passages.  The quote I pulled out in the beginning was absolutely my favorite.  What Arrow describes as the “core of what it means to be human” is the core of this novel.  This is a novel about what it means to be human in an unforgettable, unforgiveable reality.  It is a story about losing your humanity and finding it again.

For me, Kenan’s story was the most remarkable.  It’s difficult to say why.  I think he was the most heroic, I think he was the most human.  However, each character is carefully drawn, none more prominent than the other.

I was surprised and disappointed to know that Vedran Smailovic, the real cellist of Sarajevo, has publically expressed his anger over the publication of the novel without his consent.  There is a fascinating article, that artfully details both sides of the story, here.  I personally think Galloway makes an excellent point – he owes Smailovic nothing.  He explicitly sites the real events as inspiration, but that the events of this novel are something different.  So then, do all novelists owe their inspiration monetary compensation?  I have to say that I’m on Galloway’s side this time.  Even though I understand Smailovic’s side, and think that Galloway should have contacted him out of respect, Galloway legally did nothing wrong.  It is also clear that Smailovic has not read the novel – I wonder if he would change his opinion about it?  As Galloway says, the novel isn’t really about the cellist.  The cellist is merely a symbol.    This novel is elegant and respectful; I hope that Smailovic one day will read the novel, at the very least.

What do you think – do you think Galloway did anything wrong?
Do you think Smailovic would change his mind if he read the novel?

90% – Hailed as a modern classic; an excellent, haunting read.

Also reviewed by:

Life in the Thumb
At Home With Books
Dreadlock Girl Reads
As Usual I Need More Bookshelves
Kiss A Cloud
Small World Reads
Caribous Mom

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3 thoughts on “Review – The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

  1. I really enjoyed reading this one, but felt a bit let down at the end, as I thought the threads of the story would all come together. They didn’t and so it came across as a bit disjointed.

    I hadn’t realised that Smailovic was angered by the novel. Thank you for linking to that article – I found it really interesting. I hope he reads it one day too, although I can see why he might be upset about it.

  2. wow! i’ve never heard of this book, nor smailovic until i stopped by. i read the linked article and can’t help feeling that galloway is in the clear, in my opinion. inspiration can be found in so many places; should it be necessary to compensate or get approval before writing a novel that uses a person as a symbolic aspect? i don’t think so. very thought provoking post and great review!

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