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April 18, 2009

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

Certain novels might not immediately appeal to me, aren’t exactly “my kind of book”, but then upon hearing nothing about one but exemplary praise, I really can’t help but read it. Which was the case with Steven Galloway’s novel The Cellist of Sarajevo, nominated for the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize, finalist for the 2009 Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, a Globe & Mail Best Book, and praised by many book lovers I hold in esteem.

This book could be classified as historical fiction, if you consider the early 1990s history. Though “historical fiction” also reads as a kind of slight, and one that is not intended here. The label is a slight, if only because so many works in the genre do the “fiction” part of the equation so very badly. History is the point, the facts are, and the reader comes away quite gratified, feeling as though they could pass an exam at school.

But facts are not the point of fiction, and in particularly not the point are lessons to be learned. If you want a lesson, read a textbook, but we turn to fiction for something more nuanced than that, more complex, and not to come away with certainty. Certainty, anyway, is some kind of illusion.

I didn’t come away from The Cellist of Sarajevo with an understanding of the conflict at its heart. I didn’t get a sense of the politics involved, the history even, of who was good and who was bad. These aren’t details I’d look for in a novel anyway, and Galloway has no desire to deal with them, or with with the perspective of the military commander who says, “I will tell you the reality of Sarajevo. There is us, and there is them. Everyone, and I mean everyone, falls into one of these two groups. I hope you know where you stand.”

But as readers we aren’t told where any of the characters stand, and that we can’t even tell makes clear Galloway’s point– that such distinctions are meaningless. People are people, and the reality of their lives in a war zone is remarkable for reasons beyond which side their affinities lie. The quotidian details are what we take away here, and they’re powerful in their general nature– that these are the kind of lives being lived each day in places all over the world. The struggle of a man to cross the city and fetch water for his family, another man who has sent his family to safety and is attempting to get to work, the task given to a sniper called Arrow. She is to protect the cellist who has been playing the same adagio every day in honour of the 22 people killed below his window, hit by shelling while standing in a lineup for bread.

The stories of these people, of these individual lives, are what fiction is made for. To quietly and without great sensation (for this is daily life after all) demonstrate what such days and lives are like, the implications of living under terror– to cross a street where you know that snipers are aimed, and whether or not you’re hit, they’ve got a hold on you. Even when nothing happens, characters are seized by the knowledge that an explosion is always imminent. Such details as that all the women have grey hair now, because no more do they have access to dye, or what it is to see an overweight person, what that means when resources are so limited for everyone.

This novel is also the story of the streets, the story of a city ravaged by war and rendered unrecognizable. How the characters reconstruct the city in their memories, these places they’ve always known. The devastation obliterates lives, but not the lives of those still living, and it becomes these citizens’ struggle to resist losing their humanity. Galloway shows the magnitude of this struggle, but also the power retained by those who succeed. That civilization is everywhere and forever always a work in progress.

3 thoughts on “The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway”

  1. JK says:

    What an eloquent review, Kerry! (As always really). You just reminded me I need to put this one on hold at the library!

  2. Kerry says:

    Thank you! It’s a wonderful book, and I hope you like it too.

  3. Stu says:

    This book is great, it doesn’t teach the facts but instead shows what living in a war zone does to people.

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