Hope and a Song: The Cellist of Sarajevo (#5 in 52)

About a month ago, I committed myself to reading one book a week for a year: the 52 in 52 project.  I must say that I am really enjoying the quiet time, reading in the evenings. Virginia Woolf may have needed 500 pounds and a room of one’s own; I only need my kids to go to sleep!

This week I read #5 of 52: The Cellist of Sarajevo.  Written by Vancouverite, Steve Galloway, the novel follows three characters, Aarow, Dragan and Kenan, over the span of a month during the Siege of Sarajevo (1992 to 1996).  The three characters are tied together by the true story of a cellist who resolves to play Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor on the same square every day for 22 days in honour of the victims of a massacre that took place there.

The story opens with a graphically sparse description of people shuffling about, trying to live their lives as best they can in a besieged city. Their world is devoid of normalcy. As they try to gather food or water or information, they are threatened by mortar shells and indiscriminate snipers who make sport of shooting civilians, young and old, as they move about the streets of the city. 

Sarajevo is a city closed from the world.  Simple amenities we take for granted are a luxury:

Electricity comes on and “light will fill all of the rooms and chase away the perpetual dusk that hides in the corners.  Even if it doesn’t last for long it will make them happy, and for the rest of the day their faces will be tired from smiling.

It’s a world where citizens believe that “it will stay like this forever, that this war isn’t a war, but just how life will be.”  And it is this life in which the three main characters exist, somewhat despondently and definitely filled with fear.  Kenan is a middle-aged man who lives like a hostage in his apartment with his wife and children, venturing out every few days and risking his life to race through intersections and across bridges to get water for his family. Dragan, alone after his wife and son escaped to Italy, is stuck at an intersection targeted by a sniper as he tries to head to the bakery where he works for a meal.  Although they do not meet, each of these men struggles with their fears as they witness the acts of heroism carried out by those around them – acts which they cannot bring themselves to replicate.

Arrow, the third character (the novel starts and ends with her) is the most compelling. A female sniper of extraordinary talent, she is brought in to protect the cellist because, as her commander tells her, they’re not going to bomb him: “It’s not about merely killing him. Shooting him is a statement.”  However, Arrow, unlike other snipers, does not, will not, target civilians (her own code of ethics).   She oftentimes has trouble pulling the trigger and it is through her rationale that the thematic thrust of the novel takes shape:

It’s a rare gift to understand that your life is wondrous, and that it won’t last forever. So when Arrow pulls the trigger and ends the life of one of the soldiers in her sights, she’ll do so not because she wants him dead, although she can’t deny that she does, but because the soldiers have robbed her and almost everyone else in the city of this gift. That life will end has become so self-evident it’s lost all meaning.

However, it is through the cellist and his song that the three characters once again begin to find their love of life; a renewed belief that despite the madness, there is beauty in being alive – there is hope.  Kenan, although still fearful of his own mortality, realizes that he must not only go on but also recapture the humanness of life prior to the siege: 

If this city is to die, it won’t be because of the men on the hills, it will be because of the people in the valley.  When they’re content to live with death, to become what the men on the hills want them to be, then Sarajevo will die.

Dragan, like Kenan, opts for the life pulse.  In a poignant reflection, he muses over the idea of a civilization being a process rather than a product and of life, during war, being a preventative measure:

The city he lives in is full of people who will someday go back to treating each other like humans. The war will end, and when it’s looked back upon it will be with regret, not with fond memories of faded glory. In the meantime he will continue to walk the streets. Streets that will not have dead and discarded bodies lying in them. He will behave now as he hopes everyone will someday behave. Because civilization isn’t’ a thing that you build and then there it is, you have it forever. It needs to be built constantly, recreated daily. It vanishes far more quickly than he ever would have thought possible. And if he wishes to live, he must do what he can to prevent the world he wants to live in from fading away. As long as there’s war, life is a preventative measure.

It is Arrow, however, who above all of the other characters, draws my interest and my commitment as a reader – the participant in this very personal and rewarding art of engaging with fiction.  The cellist’s adagio touches her in a very personal way:

The men in the city didn’t have to be murderers. The men in the city didn’t have to lower themselves to fight their attackers. She didn’t have to be filled with hatred. The music demanded that she remember this, that she know to a certainty that the world still held the capacity for goodness. The notes were proof of that.

In the beginning of the novel, we learn that Arrow is not her real name. She uses this pseudonym as a means to deal with her reality of being a sniper:

To hate people because they hated her first, and then to hate them because of what they’ve done to her, has created a desire to separate the part of her that will fight back, that will enjoy fighting back, from the part that never wanted to fight in the first place. Using her real name would make her no different from the men she kills. It would be a death greater than the end of her life. 

Her response to people who wish to know her real name: “I am Arrow, because I hate them. The woman you knew hated nobody.”  Remember this as you read the final four words of the novel – a sentence that will move you to tears and will haunt you as it continues to haunt me, two days after having put the novel down.

Just as Albinoni’s Adagio was re-created from a fragment after the only extant score was firebombed in the Dresden Music Library, the cellist of Sarajevo creates something new and inspiring for the characters within this novel.  Their fictional experiences will remind you, as it did me, that life is worth living and that hope is the eternal driver

The Cellist of Sarajevo: a great read that I have already leant out to my colleague, Thomas Harapnuick.