Review: The Cellist of Sarajevo

The Cellist of SarajevoThe Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The "Cellist of Sarajevo" is a fictional account following the lives of four people struggling to survive during the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War of the early 1990’s. For those who don’t have much time devoted to reading, this book is a quick read.

The story itself is sometimes emotional, sometimes raw, and often depressing as it alternates between the lives of four characters (none of whom know each other) who struggle to survive. It begins when a Serbian mortar shell lands in the middle of a crowded market, killing 22 people and injuring scores more. A man living in an apartment near the market witnesses the explosion and subsequent deaths of many of his friends.

In the aftermath of this particularly gruesome attack, he vows to play Albinono’s Adagio in G Minor on his cello in the market, at the same spot and same time the shell exploded, for 22 days — one day for each person killed. (Why the story makes a big deal of the particular piece the cellist plays, I’m not sure — perhaps because it’s such a sad instrumental?)

Over the course of 22 days, the story shifts between 3 other characters, one who is a female sniper in the resistance (and confronts personal demons over the morality of her killings), an old man who became withdrawn and isolated because of the war (in order to protect himself from becoming too close to anyone else who might die), and a father who must make a dangerous trek every few days to provide food and water for his wife and children.

The personal conflicts each character deals with, because of and in addition to the war make for a somber story. While the story is fictitious, it provides a seemingly accurate and compelling portrayal of what life was like under a sieged city; indiscriminate shelling, snipers picking off innocent people, government corruption, lack of aid, food, water, or information.

Another aspect I thought was particularly interesting was the author’s portrayal of the morbid sense of humor the citizens of Sarajevo adopted during the situation. Jokes such as "Oh, you don’t want coffee? Now I can take a shower [with the small pot of water]" or "Don’t worry, I think the sniper today is just a bad shot!" show how people cope and still try to make the best of an unfortunate situation.

The Cellist of Sarajevo struck a personal chord with me, thanks to having a few friends who lived in or around the Balkans during the actual war. Another friend worked with a humanitarian organization inside Sarajevo during the siege! Their vivid and intense accounts of life meshed well with what this story described.

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