On April 5, 1992, Bosnian Serb forces laid siege over the city of Sarajevo. Almost 4 years later, the siege was lifted. During this period, the besieging forces shelled the city on average over 300 times a day, with snipers positioned to shoot at civilans and defenders alike from their upper ground in the hills. When the conflict ended, most of the city was destroyed – the national library, the opera house, the tram system, electricity, places of work, means of livelihood. An estimated 10,000 of the city’s inhabitants were dead, 1,500 of whom were children.

In Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, Dragan, one of the 4 main characters in the book, a baker by profession on his way to the bakery, stares at the dead body of a man that he had earlier witnessed being shot by a sniper bullet. A press photographer has positioned his camera to capture that image.

There is nothing in a dead body that suggests what it was like to be alive. No one will know if the man had unusually large feet, which his friends used to tease him about when he was a child. No one will know about the scar on his back he got from falling out of a tree, or that his favorite food was chocolate cake…

None of this will ever be said again, has simply vanished from existence. But these are things that make death something to be mourned. It is not a disappearance of flesh. This in, and of itself, is easily shrugged off. When the body of the hatless man in shown on evening news to people all over the world, they will do exactly that. They may remark on the horror, but they will, most likely, think nothing of it at all

The cellist, another of the 4, watches a shell blow up a bakery where people are waiting in a queue, killing 22. He decides to play Albinoni’s Adagio at the spot of the explosion for the next 22 days – one for each person killed. Kenan, a former accountant and now without means, has to make a long walk to the brewery to fetch water for his family – wife and 3 kids, and an old neighbor much disliked – running the risk of being shot by a sniper en route. Arrow is a sniper employed by the defenders of the city to counter-attack and kill the shooters in the hills. Through the parallel narratives of these 4 individuals, we are presented an image of what it is like to be in a city ravaged with conflict – one where normal existence is something yearned for, where the future is nothing more than an expectation of the past, and memories blend into dreams.

The narratives involving Arrow are the ones I found most riveting, perhaps because unlike Dragan and Kenan, who move about in constant fear and are tinged with a sense of self-guilt at ensuring only their own survival and those of their families, Arrow has the ability to retaliate, to protect. In preventing the cause of suffering, she justifies in her mind the act of killing. She hates the people on the hills for what they do, rather than who they are, but over time she wonders if there remains such a distinction. She is brave like the cellist that, despite the high risk he runs of being killed, plays his music day after day.

The cellist’s act of playing music, seemingly foolish at first instance for putting himself in harms way, represents a defiance against letting the situation around him change who he is. The music represents what it means to be human, to be alive. It is a moving melody of life that rises above the cacophony of death, of destruction. This makes the cellist the focus of the book’s title despite his limited presence in the narrative. The cellist reminds one of the violinists in Titanic, the movie, that play their violins while the ship is sinking and people about them are in chaos.

Galloway’s writing style is clear and crisp. He does not draw out grief till it overwhelms you, nor does he narrate without passion. It is the perfect blend of words that deliver what they are meant to, no more, no less. Neither are the words Bosnian or Serb mentioned anywhere. Instead the besiegers are simply the ‘men on the hills’, and those defending the city are referred to as the defenders. Sarajevo, despite the elaborate description of the city that Halloway paints, could be any place in the world, any place caught in strife between those on the fringes and those within. At a time, when where brief outrages at flickering images of conflict on screen are easily forgotten with a flick of a button, The Cellist of Sarajevo is a grim reminder of what it might feel like to be in conflict, and makes a compelling case for protecting that joie de vivre we so easily take for granted. For oursleves, and for everyone else.

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