The Cellist of Sarajevo

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Steven Galloway
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. date: Mar. 2009 (read Dec. 2019)

It took me ages to read the Cellist of Sarajevo, but it had nothing to do with the book itself. I made the mistake of starting it right before the Goodreads Choice Awards were announced and promptly got distracted by all the awesome books that were nominated. But I made it a priority to finish before my trip to New Zealand and I ended up really liking it.

I knew the premise of the story, but I didn’t realize that the plot was split between 4 (really 3) main characters. I immediately liked the writing, but I was a little unsure of what to expect from the plot. The Cellist of Sarajevo is about the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. The people who were able to get out of the city are long gone and we are left with the civilians who never had the means to get out and haven’t been called to the front to fight. The city is under siege by the men in the hills, who regularly shell the city and set snipers at many of the major intersections. With so many of the city’s services destroyed, it makes daily life very difficult for the people trapped in the city. The safest place to be is indoors, but everyone is forced to venture into the city in search of food and water.

The Cellist, who is based on a real individual, is at the centre of the story, without the story actually being about him. After 22 people were killed lining up for bread, he decides to play his cello in the street for 22 days to honour each of the lives lost.

This book is the kind of subtle literary fiction that I love. There’s nothing really propelling the story – it is just average people trying to survive their every day life in a city beset by war – yet I can’t deny the impact of the storytelling. It’s not the plot that drives the story, but the resilience and tenacity of the individuals. At times it’s hard to discern the timeline of the story, but it never really matters because this book is really only a character study about the kind of choices we make during challenging times. I admire the author for his writing and exploration of the human psyche as someone who was neither in Bosnia during the siege or who has lived through a war. The plot is so simple, yet the characters inner monologues have such depth.

It’s hard to articulate the impact of the writing, but I particularly admired how Galloway wrote both Dragon and Kenan’s characters. Neither are heroes and they struggle with seemingly mundane things, but it rings so true of the long term impact of violence and how it can both make you hopeful and make you question your integrity. Dragon dreams of an escape from the city, while simultaneously acknowledging the gravitas of being where he is right now. Kenan struggles with the exhaustion of taking care of so many people and is tempted to abandon his obligations just to look after himself. War brings people down to their base instincts and needs and I really liked this study of what really matters when it comes down to it. Wonderful writing.