Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

A weapon does not decide whether or not to kill. A weapon is a manifestation of a decision that has already been made.

You'd think The Cellist of Sarajevo, being set during the siege of the city back in the 1990's, would be a hard book to enjoy, but it's really not. The pages of the story pass easily into a few hours and the war setting is bearable because it's creating the characters, who are so easy to care about, so easy to empathize with.

One day a shell kills 22 people who were waiting in line to, they hoped, buy bread. The cellist from the Sarajevo Symphony was practicing by his apartment window and saw neighbors and friends killed, and determined that he would play in the crater the explosion made one day for each of the people killed.

This, of course, makes him a target for the forces holding the city, and so the city's defenders position a sniper of their own to protect him from the snipers their attackers would certainly send. Arrow is a young woman who is practically a legend in besieged Sarajevo. She questions, constantly, her motives for killing the enemy; one of her biggest fears is becoming like them.

But the story also follows a man fetching water for his family and his neighbor; he makes this dangerous trek every four or five days. And there is also a man who works in a bakery; he's one o the few men still employed in the city. He sent his wife and son to safety in Italy before escape was impossible.

I see why this book has received so much acclaim. Galloway takes great care to make readers feel as if they are there, describing the sections of Sarajevo and positions of buildings and bridges and frequented roads but managing not to overwhelm readers with the unfamiliarity of the place or irrelevant details .

Though in Galloway's afterword, he says that he "compressed three years into under a month" in his book, it didn't feel that way. Rather, it felt like was a few snapshots of sometime in the middle of the siege. Nothing about the beginning and end of the book indicate that the beginning or end of the siege is represented.

The Cellist of Sarajevo explores, above all, the identities of its characters. Are they victims? To what extent do their choices re-create who they are in this new, besieged city that no longer resembles the city they once loved? And to whom does it matter?

Highly recommended.


bermudaonion said...

I've had this one for a while and need to find the time to read it. Thanks for your review!

Zibilee said...

I've heard quite a lot of good things about this book, and have had it on my list for some time now. After reading your review, I am thinking about picking it up at the end of the week. It sounds like a very powerful book. Great review!