“It is a rare gift to understand that your life is wondrous and that it won’t last forever.” (The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway)
Throughout The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway we are constantly reminded that life always ends. Galloway underscores the perverseness of war and death in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovnia during 1992 to 1996 by telling his fictionalized story through three characters: Kenan, Dragan, and Arrow.
Kenan is a middle-aged man living with his family in Sarajevo, struggling to get water for his family and neighbour every four days. Dragan, an older man whose family left at the beginning of the siege, now risks his life to trade bread for shelter. Through these two characters Galloway highlights that even small tasks, like crossing the street, have become epic challenges due to the ‘men on the hills’ shooting at those in the city. In contrast to these two characters, Arrow is a young, adept sniper who fights according to her own morals, shooting only soldiers, not civilians. In the midst of them is the cellist of Sarajevo: a man who memorializes a bombing which killed 22 people queueing to buy bread by playing his cello in the open one day for each of the dead. We only hear briefly from his character but the cellist is central to the story, prompting the characters to analyze their own actions during the siege. Once the 22 days end so does the story, and the audience is left to contemplate a book that celebrates the good in small but heroic acts, and mourns the depths of human hatred.
There actually is a cellist of Sarajevo – his name is Vedran Smailović and he did play in Sarajevo for 22 days to commemorate the bombing of 22 individuals. Unfortunately, Smailović did not appreciate the book’s attention or Galloway’s fictionalization of his story. As Smailović said:
“I didn’t play for 22 days, I played all my life in Sarajevo and for the two years of the siege each and every day. They keep saying I played at four in the afternoon, but the explosion was at 10 in the morning and I am not stupid, I wasn’t looking to get shot by snipers so I varied my routine. I never stopped playing music throughout the siege. My weapon was my cello. But if I do not get justice now I will burn it back in Sarajevo.”
As you might have guessed, this became one of the subjects of our discussion and we wondered if Galloway’s behaviour was moral. Was basing a creative work off a public act ethical? Is Galloway exploiting someone else’s misery? What about consent from the subject of art? One of our members aptly questioned if this story was similar to attending a graveyard, observing a family deeply in mourning, and then turning around writing a book about it. While it could be done, it feels a distasteful to intrude on someone’s very personal act of grieving. Smailović questions this himself, asking “How can somebody steal your work, my, my sadness, my, my tragedy?”
No matter where you stand on the topic, it’s worth seeing Smailović play Albinoni’s Adagio, the song he played in honour of those 22 dead.
If you would like some background information on the Bosnian war, check out this (graphic) ABC news video from the middle of the conflict.
Lastly, this meeting was shortly before Alicia moved to New York so we presented her with a photobook of our times together – something that made all of us tear up!! I’m sure she knows this, but just in case she ever doubts it: Alicia, all of book club is so proud of you and your accomplishments!