Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Cellist of Saravejo by Steven Galloway

Steven Galloway is a Canadian writer whose third book, "The Cellist of Saravejo", has become an international best seller, not without some controversy. While the setting of the book is clearly portrayed as being Saravejo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the author assures us in a preface, that “this is above all else a work of fiction.” Galloway, however, does want to connect readers with the historic siege of Sarajevo, which took place from 1992 to 1996. During the Bosnian war, Sarajevo was targeted by the Serbian army, who feared encroachment and domination by Croats, the other primary nationality living in that region. The Serbian forces rained down death and destruction on Sarajevo, effectively blocking the city and exposing inhabitants to starvation and disease, as well as inflicting rape and torture.

There have been atrocities on all sides in the Balkan conflict, but the Serbian nationalist profile is one that emerges as the most horrendous, as witness their leaders now being tried in The Hague for war crimes. Galloway describes the lives of four city residents in prose that is precise and meant to be impersonal, giving us a birds-eye view of each person’s reflections and how they adapt to survive. Galloway takes pains to show how each person struggles with living in a war. His characters find themselves losing compassion, direction, and hope. Then an act of bravery, charity, or love revives them, and they remember who they are and why they should care about other people. The main action that inspires them in this book is a cellist who plays in the street, mourning the victims.

What is interesting is that the cellist of Sarajevo was a real person, Vedran Smailovic, who is now living in Ireland. He is outraged by Galloway’s use of his character as the symbol for hope in his book. The cellist in the book plays every day for 22 days (at the same time) as a tribute to 22 people killed while standing in line for bread. Smailovic says that he played for two years, not just 22 days, and was not so stupid not to vary his times playing, to make a harder target for the snipers.

Galloway does not explore the racial hatred in Bosnia and Herzegovina, preferring to emphasize our common humanity. But this idealizing of life without war wears somewhat thin as the novel goes on. War is never simple, yet Galloway tries to make it so, by stripping characters of their racial identity and assuming that to kill anyone is just a mistake that people fall into. "The Cellist of Sarajevo" uses historical events as the impetus behind its story, but, in my view, fails to illuminate them.

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