Portal to the Pages

A quick glimpse into my thoughts on various fiction

The Cellist of Sarajevo – Stephen Galloway

on October 3, 2012
Book cover of "The Cellist of Sarajevo"

The Cellist of Sarajevo

My dad handed me this book and simply said, “It’s a very quick read but I think you’ll like it”. He’s not one to steer me wrong when it comes to books. I can’t recall a time I have ever disliked one of his recommendations. Therefore I am happy to admit that I knew nothing about this book before reading it; the author was unknown to me and, as I got it based on a recommendation, I did not even read the synopsis on the back. The book is quite short and, as such, one might be inclined to dismiss it as light reading. However, it is anything but.

The story is set during the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s, the longest siege in modern times. There are four main characters, each with their own story and the chapters alternate between their different viewpoints. The focal point of all their stories is that of the title character, the cellist, and his decision to play for 22 days in a shelled street where 22 people were killed.

The events in the book are all compressed into a significantly short period of time, in order to fit around the cellist’s actions. The author admits that he has employed some creative licence in order to illustrate the atrocities of such a long siege over a short timeframe. Regardless, all the events feel extremely plausible and real, whether it is a night of particularly heavy shelling or simply a man’s efforts at crossing a sniper-targeted bridge.

Many books that are set in war times, or similar events, focus on the actions of soldiers or officials and often highlight the well-known historical events that occurred. The Cellist of Sarajevo is different in that its focus is on the ordinary people affected by the siege and their efforts to preserve a semblance of normality, or in one such case, a character’s efforts to separate their wartime self from their “normal” self. I found that through focusing on the civilians caught up in the siege, the author manages to evoke much more empathy than other perspectives might lead to.

More than any other topic, this is a book about human suffering and the desperate need that we feel to pretend that all is well when faced with atrocities too large to initially comprehend. The reason that the book resonates so much is that these topics are not exclusive to the situations of war and violence; they can be seen in various scenarios in our everyday lives. Consider the man whose wife leaves him, or the woman who makes a mistake in work that she knows will cost her her job. They will often pretend that everything is fine so that they do not have to face the reality of what has happened. The author portrays this attitude with appropriate delicacy and tact and uses it to help explain how the characters do not simply break down over the course of the book.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Cellist of Sarajevo due to its simple writing style expressing a complex scenario in a highly relatable way. I feel that it is a book that will stay with me for a long time, as I do not have answers to the questions it poses about human nature and the true casualties of war. I would highly recommend it, even for those who know nothing about the siege of Sarajevo. It does not assume that the reader knows a lot about the siege, nor does it undertake the task of educating the reader about the siege itself. In fact, if you changed the names of places in the book, it could almost be about any city caught in the middle of a war. This is in no way a downfall of the book, in fact I would consider it to be one of its strongest points. Empathy can be evoked much easier if we do not feel alienated from the characters suffering, as some deeply cultural settings can result in.

There are many ethical issues raised surrounding the experiences of those caught up in wars, however there is no obligation on the reader to delve any further into these issues. That said, I would question whether you would be able to simply read this book, put it down and get on with your life. I know that it will continue to influence my everyday decisions for a good while yet.

If you have also read The Cellist of Sarajevo, let me know your thoughts on it in the comments section.

Sinéad

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2 responses to “The Cellist of Sarajevo – Stephen Galloway

  1. Caoimhe says:

    Fantastic idea Sinead and a lovely review, what a way you have with words! I’ll be looking forward to your next instalment, best of luck!

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